The ultimate guide to using a VPN – how it works and what it does

Like having a cloak of invisibility for the connected world

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Lately, headlines about cybercriminals stealing personal data and major companies selling your web-browsing history have taken over the news.

Of course, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal was the big one – and it made people everywhere stop and consider the information they’re freely giving away online. 

You don't have to be doing anything illegal to be concerned about your browsing history or personal data ending up in the wrong hands. One simple solution is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). If you haven't heard of a VPN, it can make a huge difference to your online security. It's easy to use but it can make things very difficult for cybercriminals.

Simply put, a VPN is like a cloak of invisibility for the connected world. It doesn't stop you from moving around and doing whatever you normally do, but it prevents unwanted eyes from tracking you when you're online.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN is an encrypted virtual tunnel that runs between your device and a remote server that's operated by the VPN provider – think of it like a connection between you and a secondary server that hides what you’re doing. 

The virtual tunnel between your device and this server is encrypted (essentially scrambled to anyone other than you). This helps protect your data on its way to and from the server, prevents your Internet Service Provider from seeing what you are doing, and it disguises your IP address when you're online. 

Why do you need one?

Imagine you're in a coffee shop and you want to connect to the public Wi-Fi network. These networks can be compromised or exploited by cybercriminals who want to steal your personal data. All the information you send as you connect to your email or social media accounts is exposed and susceptible to attack. 

Let’s break it down to its simplest form. You’re in a coffee shop, on your laptop to pass time, and you connect to the public Wi-Fi. Someone is sitting in that same coffee shop, watching the network and recording every single thing that’s sent over it: emails, passwords, messages. 

Unless, that is, you have a VPN. If you have a VPN, you can log on without a second thought as you know that it's providing a virtual tunnel to hide your data from nosy or malicious third parties. Private data you send is encrypted and it helps keep your device safe from potential harm. 

The cybercriminal can see what everyone else is doing, but you’re now cloaked and hidden. 

As we all start to become more informed about online privacy and data protection, having a VPN becomes a simple security measure that can boost your security online. It's all about peace of mind. You'll not worry about unsecured connections or untrusted networks. 

A VPN will help you stay safe when you're using public Wi-Fi networks

Of course, VPNs tie in to the larger conversation that’s happening around online privacy too. 

But VPNs are now becoming a weapon of choice for internet users concerned about online privacy. 

A simple way to keep your online life private is to hop on a VPN whenever you connect to the internet.

However, do your homework before choosing a provider as some VPNs are better than others. Pick a trusted company with a good track record to ensure that your chosen VPN is actually doing what it claims to do.

Another thing to consider is that some online services won't recognise your IP address if you encrypt it with a VPN. The likes of Netflix or smart home devices won't work with some VPNs, so it pays to do a bit of research on any service that you plan to use. 

Where to get a VPN?

Browser-based VPNs and other free VPN services are widely available online. You can also buy a VPN-enabled router but most people pay a monthly subscription for a basic VPN service. Check out customer reviews and terms of service when deciding which VPN provider to use. 

Things to look out for include whether it works with streaming sites, whether the VPN provider keeps a log of your activities and if you can use the service on more than one device.

Many VPN providers offer an app that you can download and use multiple compatible devices. Alternatively, you can configure your device's network settings to connect with your chosen VPN service. Once your VPN is installed and you're logged in, it will then automatically connect to a server.

You can also get Norton Secure VPN so you can protect and encrypt your device with one annual subscription.