What is a VPN? Do I need one?

Published Oct, 10 2013

Proxy gnome!Entrepreneurs and employees increasingly tend to spend a lot of time out of the office, and more time in coffee shops, parks, airports, hotels, and the homes of friends and loved ones. Trouble is, when you connect to the Internet in a “hot spot,” you are putting yourself at risk. Bad actors can grab every keystroke right out of the air!

One option to protect yourself is to use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. VPNs allow you to securely connect to and anonymously browse the Internet over WiFi.

The Trouble with IP Addresses

Every time you connect to the Internet, you do so from an IP address. IP addresses are important because they establish an address that the magical Internet can use to send you back requested information. Trouble is, an IP address also includes your location information. Flip over to whatismyipaddress.com for a moment and you’ll see what I mean.

Since this location information is available to your Internet Service Provider, or ISP, it’s not all that hard to imagine connecting your location to who you are, and what your billing information is. How much do you trust your beloved cable company?

What VPNs Do and Why they Might Make Sense for You

Which VPN is for me?There are a couple of reasons you might use a VPN. If you’re a business with an existing private intranet, a VPN allows employees to securely access it remotely via the Internet. It also can be used by individuals who just want more privacy.

VPNs provide privacy by allowing people to connect to the Internet through proxies. I like to picture proxies as little magic gnomes that happily receive your directions then send them along, except they first use their magic to obscure your original IP address (and all the baggage that comes with it). In other words, the magic Proxy Gnomes help you browse the Internet anonymously, protecting your identity.

What it Costs

Paid VPN’s usually carry a reasonable monthly charge from $5-$15/month, and are increasingly marketed by reputable virus protection companies like Avast, which promises to “secure any public WiFi and anonymize your browsing.” Lifehacker has an excellent post on why you should use a VPN and which you should choose.

If a remote, point-to-point connection to a company’s private network sounds useful, you’re likely going to want to go with a VPN. However, if you’re JUST looking for anonymous browsing, it might not be worth it.

We will discuss some free options for proxies (excuse me, “Proxy Gnomes”) in our next post, “What is Tor, and Can it Help Me Browse the Internet Anonymously?”

Still of Jim Carrey from The Cable Guy Courtesy of IMDB