Entering your PIN when paying with your debit card, a confidential chat, your own four walls: Many of us value privacy as something precious, and we’d do anything to protect ourselves and our loved ones from any kind of attack.
That is, apart from when using our many digital devices, when many of us drop our guard a bit and perhaps think that nobody’s interested in what we get up to online or our personal internet accounts.
But let’s not kid ourselves: With the ever-increasing flood of cyberthreats emerging every day, it’s time to take action and ironclad our online privacy and make our internet connection more secure — VPNs are a great way to do just that.
Read on to learn what VPNs are all about as well as when, where, and how a VPN can even help protect your online privacy.
What actually is a VPN?
VPN is short for virtual private network. When you use a VPN, connections are established using information from internet protocols, such as an IP address, to establish an encrypted tunnel between two endpoints.
This means a VPN connection allows you to access existing networks without revealing your own online identity — in other words, you can surf anonymously.
According to Wikipedia, says there are two types of VPN: SSL VPNs (web-based VPNs), which have been around since 2002, and regular VPNs. We’ll get to VPN types later in this post, so let’s look first at VPNs more generally.
VPN: How it works
When you enter a website address into your browser, your laptop, PC, smartphone, or tablet connects to the server hosting that website. In the course of the request, your IP (internet protocol) address is transmitted practically unencrypted to the website operator’s server. That’s all the more astounding because this IP address is a unique identification number assigned only to your device, meaning it can be used to determine many things — including your location and other information.
Website operators typically use the data collected about their visitors to analyze and optimize their marketing activities. They can, for instance, find your location, how long you stay on the website, and which areas you click on — and plan campaigns based on the anonymously collected user data.
When using a VPN, however, there is no direct and therefore unencrypted connection to the server of the website you visited. Rather, only the VPN server’s IP address is displayed to the website operator. This means your online identity remains masked and you can surf anonymously.
In addition to anonymizing your connection to the server of the website you’re visiting, using a VPN also encrypts everything you send and receive over the internet connection itself — this means that hackers have practically zero chance of getting to your data and spying on your online activities.
We’ve already mentioned that a VPN masks your IP address by first routing your internet activities through the VPN server in a quasi-automated or remote manner.
This means that a VPN acts as a kind of filter or tunnel between the device you’re using and the internet. This filter masks your IP address and anonymizes your online activities so that unauthorized parties, whether cybercriminals or data-hungry companies, cannot link it to you.
Why do you need a VPN connection?
The reasons for needing a VPN connection are clear: VPNs ensure that data transmitted between your chosen device and the internet remains secure and private. All requests and data sent each way, in other words all your internet activities, are sent through an encrypted tunnel so that unauthorized third parties cannot gain access to them.
This means VPNs enable us to transfer data more securely thanks to encryption technologies.
When’s best to use a VPN connection?
There are a number of occasions and circumstances when, in our view, it’s good to use a VPN connection to protect your online privacy. These include
- when traveling or in cafes, when you like to do some online banking, access your social media profiles, or check emails. Using public Wi-Fi hotspots makes you a particularly attractive target for hackers. And other users who are on the same network can easily spy on what you’re up to and even steal your personal information in the process. That’s because these public Wi-Fi hotspots are usually not subject to the same security requirements as is the case with companies or our personal home networks. This is where a VPN connection helps ensure that your data that you send and receive online is protected.
- And of course, in this age of remote working from the home office, it’s important that you can access your corporate network from more places than just the company office. With a VPN connection, you can also log in to your corporate network from home or other locations — with IT managers in most cases implementing comprehensive VPN solutions as part of their security strategies anyway.
- Your personal data, payment information, and even your entire identity may well be less vulnerable on home and other private networks, but on corporate networks too, your online activities can be exposed to prying eyes and companies can track your online activities and create a user profile to target you and sell you more products.
- While we’re talking about companies and user profiles: Many online shops and other websites use geoblocks to display local versions of their web pages. This means you could get cheaper offers from other countries and save money by using a VPN connection.
- In many countries with restrictive internet laws, you can use a VPN connection to access websites that may be blocked. However, as a user, the onus is on you to find out whether or not using a VPN is legal and to check the laws of the country before using a VPN.
A VPN isn’t a replacement for an antivirus program
Despite the many good arguments in favor of and benefits in using a VPN solution, you shouldn’t underestimate the limits. There’s no such thing as 100% security when it comes to your online privacy. This is because some VPN services, if they don’t have a no-log policy, can also inspect your data — and even data leaks can happen occasionally despite the highest security standards.
A VPN connection also does not protect your internet-enabled devices from viruses and other malware that you download at a careless moment or that have wormed their way into your software and apps as Trojans without you doing anything.
However, you’ve probably heard it all before when we say that it’s well worth getting an advanced, tried-and-tested antivirus program for your devices. As it’s always scanning in the background, viruses and other cyberthreats can be easily detected.
With Avira Free Antivirus solution, for example, you are getting a solution that can help you detect a possible virus attack on your computer — as well as on your mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets too thanks to the mobile versions of the solution.
What are the advantages of a VPN?
As you already know from what we’ve said, a VPN is the tool of choice for many circumstances and can help you better protect your online privacy.
And even if a VPN, no matter how good, cannot guarantee rock-solid protection of the data you send and receive online, there are a number of plus points about using a VPN.
A VPN can…
- Strengthen your protection when using public Wi-Fi hotspots
Especially when traveling or connecting frequently to the internet using public Wi-Fi hotspots, using a VPN solution makes a lot of sense to protect yourself from anyone spying on your online activities due to the often lax security standards of public hotspots.
- Avoid internet censorship when traveling
Some countries restrict or prohibit access to specific websites or censor certain content. A VPN connection can give you access to these websites or this content by routing your traffic through another location. However, as a user, the onus is on you to find out whether or not using a VPN is legal and to check the laws of the country before using a VPN.
- Prevent third parties tracking your online activities
Thanks to advanced encryption technologies, it’s become much more difficult for cybercriminals — but also for online advertisers and other companies — to gain access to data and track your online activities. However, you should use a trustworthy VPN client that offers correspondingly high security standards.
Different types of VPN
Basically, VPNs are designed to make your browsing experience safer. The various types differ based on their user groups.
This is because a VPN that’s used in a corporate context or in public authorities is usually set up differently and has to perform different functions and meet different security standards than one that we use as private individuals to access the internet. There are also different VPN protocols. Let’s dive in.
Remote access or regular VPN
A regular VPN — also known as a remote access VPN — is a virtual, protected, and self-contained communication network. It’s used in companies, for example, to grant remote workers or employees in their home offices secure access to the corporate network.
The pandemic saw a rise in the use of regular VPNs so employees could access server data outside of the company or save their own work on the company server.
As a rule, regular VPNs are additionally encrypted and secured against unauthorized access. This all requires special VPN software which is set up on employees’ PCs and the corporate server.
Site-to-site or router-to-router VPN
Site-to-site VPNs are typically also used in corporate networks to securely connect two or more company locations. Nothing else is installed on the employees’ PCs in such a corporate network; instead, the routers at the locations are configured directly.
This is why a site-to-site VPN is also referred to as a router-to-router VPN.
Client-to-server VPNs in a corporate context
With a client-to-server VPN, the connection is established using a VPN client. Figuratively speaking, this is a bit like connecting your home PC to a company network using an extension cable.
If your company uses a client-to-server VPN solution and has installed a VPN client on your work PC, this means you’re connected directly to your company VPN and not via your own internet service provider.
As an employee, you can then log in to your company network from your home office via the secure connection and work as if you were sitting in the company office. Assuming you have an appropriate telephone system, you can connect to the system with a headset, for example, and your company’s customers will have no idea whether you’re working from the company office or your home office.
This type of VPN access for companies offers improved efficiency and universal access to a company’s IT resources. As a user of a client-to-server VPN, you’ll probably not notice any of this, but you’ll still be able to access data on the corporate network faster.
Client-based VPN (VPN client)
Instead of using the VPN to create an encryption tunnel to disguise an existing internet connection, a client-based VPN can automatically encrypt the data before it’s delivered to you as a user.
When we talk in general about VPNs, we now primarily mean a client-based VPN. Essentially, this means software (or a VPN client) from a VPN provider that you can install on your laptop, PC, or mobile device.
Once installed, such a client-based VPN encrypts your online activities and allows you to “change” or mask your IP address, preventing third parties from tracking what you get up to online.
Incidentally, client-based VPNs are also an increasingly common form of VPN that are now also proving useful for providers of unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is because they can prevent third parties from accessing and compromising the network connection. It also helps prevent online advertisers and other companies from gaining access to data that — for whatever reason — remains unencrypted.
SSL or web-based VPNs
SSL VPNs — or web-based VPNs — have been around since 2002. SSL is short for secure socket layer.
An SSL VPN allows remote users to access web applications, client-server applications, and internal network utilities and directories without the need for special client software. Generally speaking, SSL VPNs provide secure communication for all types of data traffic over public and private networks.
So in principle, the function is the same: To provide a secure and encrypted connection over a less secure network such as the internet — and all without the VPN partner being tied to a company network. However, access via an SSL VPN is usually limited to certain applications and, as the name suggests, always uses SSL encryption.
With an SSL VPN, an internet browser is typically the VPN client. Here, data is transmitted from the browser to an HTTP server (web server), which serves as the VPN gateway, via HTTPS
(short for hypertext transfer protocol secure). The transmission protocol is the language in which the web client — usually the web browser — and the respective web servers communicate with each other. HTTPS has now become the standard transmission protocol for encrypted web communication that has cross-browser support — although it falls short of the potential of a regular VPN.
How do you install a VPN?
There are a number of ways you can set up a VPN. It all depends on what devices, users, and usage locations are relevant to you.
For example, if you use a smart TV, video game console, or other smart home device, a VPN router is a good option because it allows you to protect in one fell swoop all the data the devices connected to your Wi-Fi network transmit online.
If, on the other hand, you frequently connect to the internet using public Wi-Fi hotspots, a VPN router is of little use to you. In this case, installing a VPN on your device makes much more sense.
However, when making your choice, bear in mind that different VPNs can also interfere with each other — which can have a negative impact on the speed of your internet connection. This means that if you have a VPN router on your laptop or smartphone and the VPN installed on the device is still on, you’ll notice the impact right away.
Setting up a VPN router
The advantage of a VPN router is that the data transmitted online via any device connected to your router’s Wi-Fi connection is equally protected. This means that whether you’re using a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or smart TV, all online activity passes through the VPN network’s encrypted data-transmission tunnel — including activities from new devices you connect to your Wi-Fi network.
To be able to use a VPN router, you first need to select a VPN provider that supports router connections — and of course you’ll also need a router on which you can install a VPN.
Depending on the device, in most cases you’ll be prompted to enter the IP address followed by your username and password. Some routers come with built-in VPN functionality that you just need to turn on, while others require you to customize the settings so data can be redirected to the VPN server.
However, because of the sheer number of routers which all work slightly differently, it’s best to refer to your device’s operating instructions.
Setting up a VPN client
If you want to set up a VPN client, first choose a trusted VPN provider like Avira, which has over 35 years of online security experience. After registering, you can download your chosen VPN client to your device.
Although you can configure some settings, this type of VPN client is designed to be easy to use — making it a breeze for even the non-technical among us to get it up and running: You simply enter your access credentials and click connect.
Using a browser VPN
Popular internet browsers now also offer VPN functionality. However, a browser VPN only anonymizes the data traffic that passes through the browser in question. This means that other programs that connect to the internet continue to use your original IP address.
By contrast, with Avira Phantom VPN Free, your online activities are anonymous and more secure, regardless of the browser you use — plus you can better protect your online privacy up to a data volume of 500 MB per month for free.
Setting up a corporate VPN
Setting up a corporate VPN isn’t rocket science either. In principle, it only takes a few steps, which of course can vary in complexity depending on the VPN provider.
To set up your corporate VPN, you first need a VPN provider that also offers business solutions. Pay particular attention to which features, employee locations, and device operating systems are to receive access to a corporate VPN. And of course, you’ll need a VPN solution that allows you to configure the wireless router and your corporate server as well.
Your next step is to remove any VPN clients installed on the devices you intend to use, then install your VPN provider’s VPN client.
Now log in to the VPN and choose a VPN protocol, such as OpenVPN — an open-source protocol that’s become the de-facto standard. This allows you to set how the various devices regulate data traffic.
Finally, all that remains is to configure your corporate VPN to suit. For example, set whether you want the VPN to turn on automatically on employees’ PCs when they log in, or which network servers should perhaps be detected automatically as favorites.
How to surf the internet more securely and anonymously
With a VPN connection, everything you send and receive over the internet can be encrypted and protected from access by unauthorized third parties, improving your online privacy. Thanks to the encryption technologies used in VPN solutions, hackers and cybercriminals can’t decrypt this data, which can also help prevent tracking of your online activities.
When choosing the VPN solution that’s right for you and your needs, make sure you go for a reputable provider.
Paid VPN offers or the free versions of what are called freemium VPNs are always a good choice.
Avira Phantom VPN, for example, is a reputable freemium VPN which, even in its freeware form, helps you manage your online activities to better protect your privacy on the internet — up to a data volume of 500 MB per month.
Avira Phantom VPN is an integrated part of Avira Antivirus Pro and the paid Avira Prime plans. With these solutions, you can increase the performance of your devices and, above all, the security of your online activities. Plus you can turn on Avira Antivirus Pro’s VPN in a matter of clicks: