What Is A VPN And Why Do I Need One?

By Jonathan Lyster
November 23, 2018

What is a VPN?You've probably seen the term VPN tossed about lately. VPN stands for "virtual private network" and there are two very useful kinds. Online VPN services help you protect your privacy while browsing the internet. Business or home VPNs let you securely access shared files, printers, or anything else on your work or personal computer networks even when you are travelling. Let’s look at why you might find one or both types of VPN helpful in your life.

Online VPN Services

A paid VPN service act likes a gate between you and the internet. Your computer links up to the VPN service and the VPN accesses the internet. This is valuable for protecting privacy and improving ability to access information and services. VPN service typically charge a monthly fee which can range from three or four dollars to hundreds, depending on the kind of service you require. Services that charge hundreds of dollars are only really useful to large companies and government organizations; so don't be scared off. A good service for home or small-business needs can cost than ten dollars a month.  Click here for a review of VPN services.

The Disadvantage: Slower Access Speeds

Creating a middleman by using a VPN service can slow your internet connection speed.  This is usually a minor issue if you use a service of decent quality.

Benefit One: Escaping The Fish Trap

The web sites you visit  can identify your IP address - the distinct address of your computer.  The site can also track what interested you on the website by how long you spent looking at particular items. This information is stored and, if you visit that website again or any site affiliated with it, can be used to customize your viewing experience. Sometimes it is nice to have a site "know" your preferences but many people prefer to not be sent down a funnel of what will be seen based on past choices. This "fish trap effect" means that, over time, what you see when you look at any of the sites owned by a particular group will be increasingly filtered and not by your own choice. When you use a VPN service, the web site owner sees only that you are one of tens of thousands of unidentified customers of that VPN. Your experience of the web site is based on your own choices each time you visit it rather than being dictated by tracking of your past choices.

Benefit Two: Long-term Reputation and Opportunity Management

Your internet service provider (ISP) can monitor everywhere you go on the internet. I write thrillers, and there are times when I need to find out whether a character might reasonably find all the ingredients for a particular kind of bomb or how law enforcement handles discovery of a body in a forested area. To me, this is no different than looking up a new recipe for apple crisp. Just useful information for a project. However, someone aware of my search history, without knowing the context, may make damaging assumptions. ("Is this guy a budding terrorist?!") When you use a VPN service, the only history your ISP builds about you is that you use a VPN service.

Benefit Three: Leaping Over Limits

Suppose you want to access a service available only in the United States but your internet service provider is located in Canada. Using an American-based VPN service means you will appear to be accessing from within the US. Some business and personal priorities can be managed better with the help of carefully selected VPN services.

Your Home or Office VPN

The other type of VPN lets you use the resources of your home or office networks even while you are travelling. Remote access to your files, printers, and other assets can be a huge boost to a business. It can even be valuable for those who don't run a business, since you can use your printer or access files on other computers on your home network. This type of VPN can be set up using a VPN router, a piece of hardware dedicated to this task. You can also run VPN software on a computer, though this is not as secure as a VPN router. In both cases, if you want a VPN, contact a technician to have it set up.

Disadvantage One:  Port Blockers

Some internet providers can block ports your virtual private network uses, so you may find yourself in a few hotels and coffee shops  (Tim Hortons, I’m looking at you)  that are VPN unfriendly. However, there are ways around this. If you believe this may be an issue, discuss it with your technician.

Disadvantage Two: Hacker Heaven

It’s especially important that you secure your office or home VPN with care. A simple password will absolutely not do. If a hacker gets into your VPN, that person will have access to your network and everything on it. Home or office VPNs are for groups that can trust each other not to give access to anyone else. And not to use a password like 123go.

Benefit One: Location Freedom

I’m writing this article in a coffee shop in Nanaimo. There are files on my server at home in Parksville that I need for reference. I have one of those files on my screen right now, accessed through my VPN. A home or office VPN can give you immense opportunity to be productive anywhere and keeps your resources at your fingertips.

Benefit Two: Secure File Sharing

When I am working on a book, my laptop sends backups of the novel to my home server every few minutes regardless of where I am. Some of my work involves software designs for clients and must be  transferred securely. Office or home VPNs greatly improve the safety of transfer for sensitive and valuable files. This is vastly better than using, for example, email. Email is notoriously insecure, and has limits on the size of files that can be transferred.

Benefit Three: Shared Resources

If my wife calls to say she needs to print a document that happens to be saved on my computer rather than hers I have the option of just sending it to our home printer for her to grab instead of emailing it.  Virtual private networks are all about increasing your options for using your collective resources.

© 2018 Jonathan Lyster
Shareable with credit to author