Your travels across the internet may have introduced you to the virtual private network (VPN). VPNs are pretty popular these days, as are companies that offer VPN services without requiring you to buy your own hardware. But what is a VPN, exactly? More importantly, do you need one?
Think of a VPN as an intermediary. When you use one, you don’t get directly online yourself. You connect to the VPN, which then connects you to the internet through its servers. There are multiple benefits to doing so. However, VPNs do have their downsides.
How VPNs Work
From a technical standpoint, a VPN is just a network server. It is designed to act as a filter for internet traffic. So again, consider your own experience. When you bring up your favorite website on your laptop computer, your computer actually sends a signal to the website through your internet service provider (ISP). Using a VPN puts another server into the equation.
Logging on to your favorite website via a VPN would work in a similar way. Your computer would send a signal to your ISP, the ISP would forward that signal to your VPN, and from there, the signal would go out to the website. The return signal would follow the same path in reverse.
Why VPNs Are Used
The nice thing about VPNs and commercial VPN services is that you can use them with virtually any kind of internet connection. They work equally well with broadband and high-speed rural internet. The downside is that they can slow down internet speeds considerably. If that is the case, why are they used?
VPNs do two things that are important to some internet users. First, they mask your IP address. When you log on to the internet, your ISP assigns an IP address to your computer. That IP address is the internet equivalent of your home address. Anyone with access to that address can track you down – at least digitally. People who do not want to be found might choose to use a VPN.
The second thing a VPN does is encrypt your data. So in addition to your IP address being hidden, your data is useless to anyone without the means to decrypt it. Thankfully, decrypting is difficult enough that hackers typically don’t waste their time. There are too many easy targets to go after.
It should be obvious that masking your IP address and encrypting your data are both security issues. That is exactly why VPNs exist. Government agencies, financial institutions, businesses, and even individual consumers who cannot compromise on data security use VPNs as a matter of course.
You Don’t Need One
From a purely technical standpoint, you do not need a VPN or VPN service to use the internet. Whether you are a Blazing Hog 4G LTE rural internet customer or you get your service from an urban broadband provider, you can do everything you want online without a VPN.
That being said, there may be occasions when your privacy is too important to gamble with. Maybe you need to send highly sensitive information over the internet. Perhaps you are in a situation in which you don’t want people to know where you are. A VPN could be useful.
The whole point of the VPN is to make the internet more secure. It does just that. But as we said earlier, VPNs do slow down internet speeds. If you choose to use a VPN, things like streaming and online gaming will be impacted. You have to sacrifice speed for privacy. That is just the way it is.