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Are You at Risk? Protect Your Online Identity with a VPN

April 15, 2020

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Not a day goes by that we don’t access the internet in some form or fashion.

Whether it’s shopping online, accessing our favorite streaming service, or posting on social media, it’s become an integral part of our daily lives.

Because of this, it’s never been more important that the necessary steps are taken to ensure that we’re browsing the internet smarter and safer. Luckily, this is made easy when we choose to use a VPN.

There are many instances in which a VPN can be useful. For example, a business protects all of its data by storing it within a private network.

This is typically done on a server, an actual computer, or a cloud-hosted service. Because company data must be secured, the network that is being used should be private.

If a business has a team of remote workers or employees that travel often, a VPN extends that private network, making it virtual and giving it the ability to be accessed anywhere.

This allows these employees the ability to securely join the network by using VPN connections. Using a VPN means that this can all be done safely by continuing to keep all company data private and away from prying eyes.

To fully understand a VPN, just break down its name.

  • Virtual: When using a VPN, a user will have a private connection directly to any website, or another computer or device connected to it.
  • Private: All website visits or any other online activity, like streaming entertainment, is strictly between the user and the website being visited.
  • Network: A VPN user has access to a specific network within the VPN server, which encompasses a specific location.

How does a VPN work?

When you aren’t using a VPN and you access a website on the internet, your internet service provider (ISP) redirects you to the website that you want to visit. All your internet traffic passes through your ISP’s servers, which means they can see and log everything you do online.

When you use a VPN, it redirects your internet traffic through a configured remote server. Then, the VPN hides your IP address and encrypts all the data that you send or receive.

The VPN acts as an intermediary as you connect to the internet — it hides your IP address and protects your personal information. If someone were to try and intercept the data, like a hacker or someone trying to steal your identity, the data wouldn’t be readable, essentially looking like gibberish.

This is done by creating a secure tunnel that protects your device’s connection to the internet. The tunnel is cited by first authenticating the device with a VPN server.

Then, the server applies an added level of protection, called the encryption protocol, to all of the data going back and forth between the device and the destination.

Before your data reaches its destination, all of your sensitive information is split into packets. For added protection, the VPN takes each data packet and encloses it into an outer packet, which is then encrypted through a process called encapsulation.

This extra packet keeps all sensitive data secure as it makes the transfer from the device to the destination within the tunnel.

Once the data has arrived safely to its destination, the decryption process can begin.

It’s important to remember that when the packet of data reaches the destination, it will arrive with a new IP address supplied by the VPN. Because of this, if you connect to a server in another country, it will appear that you’re browsing from that country.

How a VPN works

How VPN encryption works

The encryption hides information that cannot be read without a specific password, which is known as a key. This key is used to break the complicated code that personal data is turned into.

The only possessors of this key are your device and the VPN server. The process for decoding this data, known as decryption, is how the information is made readable again through the application of the key.

The process of VPN encryption is done in three steps:

  1. Once a connection is made within the VPN, your data is encoded within a secure tunnel, making it unreadable as it travels from your device and the VPN server.
  2. Your device is now seen as being on the same network as the VPN, so the IP address being used is one of the VPN provider’s servers.
  3. You can browse the internet however you please, accessing a variety of websites and software solutions, as the VPN protects your personal information.

Encryption is used in more than just VPNs. For example, think of all of the times you enter your credit card number when shopping on a secure website. Your credit card number and all of your other private information is encrypted, making it unreadable until it reaches its end destination. In this case, the end destination would be the website you’re buying from.

Thanks to the process of encryption, a VPN can successfully hide things like:

  • Your browsing history and web activity
  • Your IP address
  • Your location
  • Your data on a device

Why use a VPN

At this point, you may be asking if a VPN is worth using and what the benefits of using a VPN are in the first place. There are many benefits and reasons why people are consistently turning to VPNs. Let’s break them down.

To change an IP address

Your IP address works like your phone number or home address in the sense that it tells websites where you are and how to connect to your device. When you use a VPN, it provides you with a new IP address, so all of your traffic will look like it’s coming from somewhere else.

To stay safe when using public WiFi

It’s not uncommon to travel to the nearest library or coffee shop with your device and join the public WiFi. We do it all the time -- but so do hackers.

All they need is some simple equipment and they can have access to your usernames and passwords when they pass through a shared WiFi point. Using a VPN encrypts this information, making it unreadable to a hacker.

To block online tracking

How many times have you searched for a new pair of shoes online only to see an ad for those same shoes on a different website five minutes later? Or maybe you’ve shopped online for onesies for your best friend's newborn, only to be shown ads for baby clothes for the next six months.

It’s happened to all of us, but when you use a VPN, you can stop advertisers from invading your online privacy by targeting your IP address for ads. By encrypting your traffic and replacing your IP address, it stops you from leaving an online footprint that an ISP or third-party agency can track.

To travel safely

Whether you’re traveling for work or want to check in on things when vacationing, you may find that you don't trust the WiFi at your hotel.

Thanks to VPN encryption, you can safely check your email, book a new flight home, or transfer money to your bank account. This means you can access both your company’s network to access work documents and your home network, no matter how far away you are.

To download files

Whether you want to admit it or not, a VPN will come in handy when downloading files using BitTorrent, which is a communication protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing to distribute data and files over the internet.

Peer-to-peer is one of the fastest and most effective methods for sharing large sets of data over a network. Regardless, many ISPs discourage internet users from this kind of file sharing.

If your ISP is making something like BitTorrent extremely slow, you can choose to use it through a VPN, allowing access to faster speeds and easy sharing.

To avoid internet censorship

If you find yourself traveling to a foreign country, a VPN can help access services that may be blocked. For instance, China blocks some social media platforms, like Facebook. If you find yourself vacationing there, you could also lose access to certain websites.

Since a VPN can change your IP address to make it look like you’re located elsewhere, you can connect to a VPN server in your home country, allowing you to access all of your favorite websites.

Tip: Find out if using a VPN is legal in the country you live or the country you’ll be traveling to.

Types of VPNs

There are essentially two types of VPNs that you can use. Which one you choose is going to depend on what you’re using the VPN for.

1. Remote access VPN

A remote access VPN allows a user to connect to a private network and access all of its services and resources while being completely remote.

The connection created between the user and the private network happens through the internet, allowing the connection to be completely private and secure. This type of VPN is typically useful for both home users and business users alike.

For instance, a home user typically uses a VPN to bypass any regional restrictions on the internet and access blocked websites. An employee of a company who is currently working remotely can use a VPN to connect to their company’s network, allowing them to access files and resources on a private network.

Personal VPN vs. business VPN

It’s important to note that there are some key differences between a personal VPN and a business VPN.

As the name would imply, a personal VPN is one that you would use at home or when conducting personal matters. For instance, you would use a personal VPN when you’re using a public WiFi network. The same can be said if you’re trying to access a geo-restricted YouTube video.

A business VPN, sometimes also called a corporate VPN, provides the opportunity for employees of a specific organization to utilize a secure end-to-end encrypted connection to cloud resources on a company network.

Personal VPN vs business VPN

2. Site to site VPN

A site to site VPN, also referred to as router to router VPN, is used mostly by large companies or organizations that have offices in different locations. This allows these companies to connect the network of one office location to the network of another office location.

Think of this as an imaginary bridge between the two networks that connect them to the internet while remaining a secure and private connection.

Within site to site VPNs, there are two ways to go about this:

 

  1. Intranet based VPN: When several offices of the same company are connected using a site to site VPN.
  2. Extranet based VPN: When companies use site to site VPNs to connect to the office of another company.

When a site to site VPN is used, one router acts as the VPN client, and another router is used as a VPN server since this type is based on a router to router communication. When authentication is complete between the two routers, communication can begin.

VPN protocols

The two VPN types are based on six different VPN security protocols. Each VPN protocol provides users with different features and levels of security depending on their needs.

  1. Internet Protocol Security: Otherwise known as IPSec, this protocol is used to secure all internet communication across an IP network. This is done by authenticating the session and encrypting each data packet during the connection. This protocol can be used in conjunction with others to increase security.
  2. Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol: L2TP is a tunneling protocol that is usually combined with IPSec to create an extremely secure VPN connection. This is done by building a tunnel between two L2TP points of connection and the IPSec protocol to encrypt the data and safeguard the communication between the tunnel.
  3. Point to Point Tunneling Protocol: PPTP is one of the most commonly used VPN protocols. It builds a tunnel and encloses the data packet. It uses a point to point protocol (PPP) to encrypt the data between the connection.
  4. Secure Socket Layer and Transport Layer Security: SSL and TLS create a specific VPN connection where the web browser acts as the client and the user access is restricted to certain applications instead of the entire network. This protocol is mainly used by online shopping websites and service providers.
  5. OpenVPN: OpenVPN uses a custom security protocol based on SSL and TLS protocol. It’s an open-source VPN that is useful for creating point to point and site to site connections.
  6. Secure Shell: SSH creates a VPN tunnel where the data transfer happens, ensuring that the tunnel is encrypted correctly. This protocol transfers data from a local port on a remote server through the encrypted tunnel.

Best VPN software

There’s no denying that the VPN market is crowded with options, so when choosing the right VPN software, consider your exact needs. This is best done by asking yourself a series of questions:

Why do I need a VPN?

Are you looking to secure your home or workplace? What sort of online activities will you be doing that require a VPN? Streaming movies? Working online while traveling?

What qualities am I looking for in a VPN?

Will the VPN need to support more than one connection? Do you want speed? Anonymity? Better encryption?

Which VPN tools have those items on my wishlist?

Evaluate the reasons you need a VPN and the qualities that you’re looking for. Weed out the options that can’t provide you with what you need. Take special note of the VPN protocol mentioned within the feature list. This will determine the levels of encryption and security. 

What’s your budget?

See what you can afford. The more capabilities a VPN has, the more expensive it will typically be.

Whatever your answers are to these questions, G2 has you covered.

* Below are the 10 leading VPN software from G2’s Spring 2020 Grid® Report. Some reviews may be edited for clarity.

1. NordVPN

NordVPN helps companies keep their network and internet connections safe by adding an extra layer of protection to secure all communication. Thanks to strong encryption that’s applied to all incoming and outgoing traffic, no third parties can access confidential information.

What users like:
“Providing the best secure gateway, NordVPN has come a long way to enable us to feel free in this age of trust issues. It not only provides no-log policy, but it also gives total protection while surfing the internet. One account can be used for many devices for shield purposes. With a very reasonable package, it gives access to every different version of geo-block content and widens the views.”
- NordVPN review by Jeremy P.

What users dislike:
“NordVPN might be a bit expensive compared to competitors. Customer support is not available as some other VPN applications. It works slowly when connected to different networks, so it takes some time to connect to any arbitrary network."
- NordVPN review by Carlos A.

2. OpenVPN

OpenVPN provides users with flexible VPN solutions to secure your data communications, whether it be for internet privacy, remote access for employees, securing IoT, or for networking cloud data centers.

What users like:

“OpenVPN is one of the most secure VPN protocols I’ve used. It keeps me in a private internet connection and without fear of hackers. It’s excellent because the platform has a list of what users can do to secure the connection after having configured OpenVPN on their devices.”
- OpenVPN review by Orlando B.

What users dislike:

“I don't like its interface very much since it’s very simple. I wish it was a little more intuitive. The update process is very poor, it’s difficult to determine the name of the version to use when updates are available. Everything else is excellent and works very well.”
- OpenVPN review by Lisandro V.

3. ProtonVPN

ProtonVPN is designed with security as its main focus. It sends internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel, so passwords and confidential data stay safe even when used over a public or untrusted internet connection.

What users like:

“I care a lot about my security and ProtonVPN has guaranteed it for months. Its interface is very clear and can be used in many operating systems-- even on cell phones. I love that I can connect up to five devices with the server on the Suite plan, because three cell phones are used at the same time in my home. I can get ProtonVPN for free or buy a plan. The important thing is that it has good prices and several payment methods, such as PayPal and a credit card.”
- ProtonVPN review by Danny V.

What users dislike:

“I really like ProtonVPN but it has some disadvantages. For example, for the free version, it only has three countries and you can only use it on one device. Also, the loading speed is very slow, sometimes it becomes impossible to send a video using the free version of ProtonVPN.”
- ProtonVPN review by Over B.

4. Connect Secure

Connect Secure is a mobile VPN that enables secure access from any device to enterprise apps and services in the data center or cloud. It provides a seamless, cost-effective, SSL VPN solution for remote and mobile users from any web-enabled device to corporate resources— anytime, anywhere.

What users like:

“This VPN keeps updating and getting better. They use a really nice two-factor authentication with Duo that makes life so much easier than carrying fobs around all the time to keep track of access codes. I like that every few weeks they keep updating and plugging their UX with better designs and faster responses.”
- Connect Secure review by David S.

What users dislike:

“The installation and setup process was difficult and in fact not possible to do individually. The IT department that I worked with to configure this needed to install it with virtual screen sharing software because specific codes and keys needed to match a specific version that only they could provide. This may or may not be the fault of the software, but either way, an improved workflow for installation would be beneficial.”
- Connect Secure review by Kevin L.

5. Hide.me

Hide.me is a free VPN proxy that provides users with simple and effective privacy features, plus gigabit speeds for all of your downloading, streaming, viewing, and surfing needs. It’s compatible with varying operating systems and offers dynamic port forwarding on paid plans.

What users like:

“Among all the software I use in my work, Hide.me is the one that offers me the greatest support in security and speed for surfing the Internet. We use this software in our company to protect our Internet connection, and Hide.me is ideal to do this as it offers many locations to start my Internet connection at my disposal, with very complex security options such as connection encryption. Their technical service is marvelous, they answer all of your questions instantly, and their price is one of the cheapest I have seen on the market.”
- Hide.me review from Miguel Alberto Z.

What users dislike:

“I consider that the free version is in unfavorable conditions with respect to the paid version since it offers a limited amount of navigation data that is renewable when sharing a VPN message on your social networks.”
- Hide.me review by Jesus M.

6. Windscribe

Windscribe is a desktop application and browser extension that works in conjunction to protect your online privacy, unblock websites, and remove ads and trackers from your everyday browsing.

What users like:

“It has high-quality servers that completely hide your true IP address and geolocation. The connection speed is quite fast from the application for Android and other mobile devices. We can program it with the firewall to avoid information leaks in case of a network interruption. The Chrome extension accelerates browsing speed.”
- Windscribe review from Misa H.

What users dislike:

“The program can sometimes enter LAN traffic because this option is automatically disabled when you log out of the program and start again. It’s an inconvenience and sometimes I am not attentive if the configurations are not restored, and I can put my security at risk.”
- Windscribe review by Adrian V.

7. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN provides users with an easy to use and high-speed VPN that is ultra-secure. Plus, with instant setup and unlimited bandwidth on up to five devices, you can be sure that you’re protected from attackers.

What users like:

“I am a person who likes to sail privately. I don't like being identified by trackers and ExpressVPN helps me with that. This program has a good monthly price and offers you more than 60 IP addresses of different parties. All sIP addresses work and have no limit on discharges. The connection speed is quite fast and this company has excellent customer service."
- ExpressVPN review from Elena T.

What users dislike:

“Sometimes it’s necessary to select the L2TP option when it’s not connected with the most appropriate protocol. The result is a more insecure connection.”
- ExpressVPN review from Ercan T.

8. TunnelBear

TunnelBear is an app that protects online privacy, helps to access favorite websites and apps, and secures connections on public WiFi hotspots. With varying plans, TunnelBear is engineered for speed with strong encryption and security that users can rely on.

What users like:

“It has a very nice interface and very easy to use. It connects very fast, and you can change countries without complications. It’s ideal for people who live in countries with internet restrictions. The browsing speed is very fast, in fact, I have tried other VPNs and TunnelBear seems the fastest of all.”
- TunnelBear review by Jack S.

What users dislike:

“Sometimes the internet connection slows down, andin the worst case, it disconnects from the internet causing serious delays in the completion of my work activities. I recommend that Tunnelbear improves its connection points to overcome these disagreements.”
- TunnelBear review by Maria Fenanda L.

9. VyprVPN

VyprVPN offers sleek, cutting-edge apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, TV, and router so you can secure your devices in seconds. Users can access top streaming services from around the world, as well as more than 200,000 IP addresses.

What users like:

“I have been using VyprVPN for the last 2 years for VPN services. This VPN software is available for both desktop and smartphone devices. Apart from its services, this tool has a nice and attractive UI that’s easy to understand for everyone. You just need to install it and use it. This tool also provides flexible plans for different types of users. This tool also provides different locations to connect. You just need to select and hit the connect button. It also works better with slow Internet connections.”
- VyprVPN review by Ankit S.

What users dislike:

“A disadvantage of this program is that it has a high cost for users and many other similar programs offer the same service for a low cost. They should put a reasonable cost to have more users enjoy this service.”
- VyprVPN review by Raymond C.

10. Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield lets you browse the web securely, anonymously, and allows users to change their browsing location to unblock content. Its military-grade encryption blocks 57 million malware and phishing sites a day. Plus, it offers users 3,200 servers in over 80 countries.

What users like:

“Hotspot Shield has excellent protocols so that third parties cannot monitor our activities on the Internet, such as OpenVPN. Another feature that I really like is that if I am connected through a mobile data device, I can limit the use of data to save broadband consumption. I also like the tool to exclude web domains from the use of the VPN in case any company domain is blocked with the use of this software.”
- Hotspot Shield review by Ulises A.

What users dislike:

“What I dislike is that although there is unlimited bandwidth for Hotspot Shield Premium, the speed for each server is variant. Some are extremely slow and disconnect every few minutes while others are quite fast. The lack of consistency in speeds of these servers is something they should work on fixing.”
- Hotspot Shield review from Shankar S.

Every move you make, they’ll be watching you

There’s never been a better time to protect your right to online privacy, and using a VPN is a great place to start. No matter where you’re accessing the internet, and what you feel like doing, a VPN can ensure that no one is watching and that your data is kept away from prying eyes.

Take the next step and learn how to set up a VPN so your identity and data remain secure.

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