Is VPN the solution to your cybersecurity concerns?

A few weeks ago, my cousin who lives in China asked me to purchase a VPN subscription for him so that he can watch videos on YouTube. Being the awesome cousin that I am, I bought an annual subscription for him without knowing exactly what I bought. I’ve always heard of VPN and knew that it was a way for people who live in countries where the internet is censored and prohibits access to websites that the rest of the world uses … sites such as Netflix, Youtube, Facebook, etc., But I’ve never known how VPNs exactly worked. Since internet privacy is becoming a more controversial and trending topic, I decided to a little research to find out more: 

A Valuable Discussion About the Ethical Issues of Internet Privacy - Tech  Spirited

VPN, or Virtual Private Network, creates a protected network connection when using a public network. It does so by hiding your IP (internet protocol) address so that your online activities are virtually untraceable. VPN creates a data tunnel between your network and an exit node in another country, making it seem as if you’re in another place. It uses encryption to scramble data when it is sent over an internet network. Essentially, when using a VPN, it becomes the source of your data, which prevents the internet provider and/or other third parties from tracking the websites you visited and the data you sent or received. 

Now, what information does a VPN helps to protect? 

  • Browsing history
    • Without a VPN, your internet service provider, web browser and websites that you visit are able to track everything you do online. Web browsers can also use your search history and tie it to your IP address. This is also a reason why when you search for flights to Hawaii on one website (even if you know you can’t go now), you start getting ads for hotels and tours on the 10 other websites you visit afterward. 
  • IP Address 
    • IP (Internet Protocol) address is a unique address that identifies your device on the internet or a local network. It acts as a return address on a letter, so it can be used to trace to your device and location. VPN prevents this by changing to an IP address that isn’t yours, so that you can browse the internet anonymously. Therefore, you are much more protected from having others being able to gather your search history and sell it to other parties. 
  • Location
    • A VPN can help protect your location by rerouting your traffic through a remote server and change the location of your IP to another country. If someone were to track your IP, it will seem like you’re connecting from a different country, which can come in handy when you’re traveling and need access to your usual content if the country you’re visiting has restrictions. 
  • Your devices
    • Whether you’re on your phone, laptop or tablet, when you’re connected to the internet, especially if you connect to a public wireless network, your device is vulnerable for cybercriminals. However, when connected to VPN, it helps to protect the data you’re receiving or sending, so that hackers can’t track all your activity. 
  • Identify Theft
    • As mentioned above, VPN creates an encrypted tunnel for the data transferred to and from your device. This means when you access personal information on the internet like your bank account, VPN will encrypt the data transmitted which helps protect your information from being used for identity theft. 

Of course, after presenting you with all the advantages of using a VPN, I should talk about its down side as well:

  • Slower internet 
    • When you’re using VPN, you’re adding a layer of privacy through the VPN server meaning instead of directly accessing the website, you’re accessing it via the VPN provider first. The encryption of your data will cause your data to travel more, and if the VPN server isn’t powerful enough, your internet speed may be slower than usual. 
  • It is not possible to bypass all restrictions
    • Streaming websites like Netflix, only have copyright to show specific content in a particular region, so they’re enforcing this. Therefore, not all VPN providers are able to bypass all restrictions.
  • The wrong VPN can put your privacy in danger
    • Even though VPN is meant to protect your privacy, using the wrong provider may do the opposite. Free VPN could sometimes not offer properly configured encryption and could even expose you to malware. Other VPNs may also keep logs of your online activities which will endanger your privacy, which defeats the purpose of VPN in the first place. 
  • Cost
    • Free VPNs often are not a reliable option, so it is best to use a paid safe provider which can range from $9-$12 a month. With the cost of all the other subscription services you may already pay for, this can definitely easily add up. 
How do you coach an employee when you have to deliver negative feedback? -  Elaina Noell: Certified NLP Coach

VPNs are increasingly becoming more popular than ever. I hope that this post gave you a little more insights on how VPNs work and its pros and cons. While it is an effective way to protect your online activities and help keep your digital identity private, it also has its disadvantages like slower internet speed and exposed data when using the wrong provider. 

Have you used VPN yourself or considered using one? Why?

With internet privacy becoming a more controversial topic, do you think more people will use it or even become a necessity when using the internet?

10 comments

  1. therealerindee · ·

    Thank you for explaining this topic a bit more. I always knew the reasons to use a VPN, but now I know what is driving those reasons. I have only used VPNs for work devices that have client info or attachments to drives that cannot be accessed by the general public, however, I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that I should start using a VPN on my personal devices as well. I look at it as an added layer of security, similar to a password manager that consistently updates your passwords. As data privacy and security become people’s first thought when accessing web data, I think VPNs will become the standard rather than something very few have which will hopefully drive down prices a bit.

  2. sayoyamusa · ·

    I’ve learned a lot from your post! Cybersecurity is a topic I’ve wanted to know more because VPNs are highly relevant to me. For the international businesspeople to do business in China, VPNs are essential to have access to Google, Facebook, Twitter etc. just like your cousin. I’ve heard that the Chinse government has imposed stricter restrictions on using VPNs and my company (which develops its business in China as well) has to keep up with what’s happening. This reminds me that China has very narrow assimilation gap with public policies being implemented so fast.
    As you have pointed out, it might be inevitable to hold some risks even when using cybersecurity tools. I really appreciate you’ve made me realize the necessity to take it seriously, as unauthorized access or leak of user information is becoming more and more serious problem at all level (from nations to individuals.)

  3. Its funny. I was on a focus group about 25 years ago (ish) for an internet provider thinking of rolling out VPN. I didn’t get the value, but all of the corporate tech people thought it was an amazing idea. Clearly they were right!

  4. alexcarey94 · ·

    At my company we us to have to be on the VNP to do virtually anything- access the shared server, get on to Skype ect. When everyone transitioned to WFH the VPN slowed down significantly, I think because people were working longer hours and not shutting down computers potentially? This caused a major problem as files were slow and people would often be kicked out slowing down productivity.

    Recently we have transitioned to cloud- eliminating shared servers, Skype and other things that you needed to be on the VPN to access. We now use teams for virtually everything which you also do not have to be on the VPN. The only thing you may now need to be on the VPN for is the company website and a few other programs. I wonder if this will have any impact on security in the future?

  5. changliu0601 · ·

    Interesting Post!!I’ve been buying VPN subscriptions for years for the same reason as your cousin.There are some VPN apps that shut down after a month of use but I paid for a year.I struggled to find a stable vpn app before.Although i have been using vpn for years, I have no idea about how it works.I learned about VPN some time ago when I did a research about a company that does Cyber Security.Thanks for your post to make understand vpn easier

  6. courtneymba · ·

    Great article and very interesting! I’ve only used VPN for work or when registering for courses. I always thought of it as a way for my company to whitelist a standardized IP address to access internal apps, but never thought about the privacy and security aspects. That makes total sense that it slows down the internet access. I feel so validated that I’m not crazy. Did it work for you cousin to be able to access Youtube?

    1. Jie Zhao · ·

      Haha yes! He tried a few different providers before but not of them were stable enough – he’s been using ExpressVPN and so far so good!

  7. AndraeAllen · ·

    I work as an IT Consultant for an electrical contractor. When the owner initially asked me about VPN, he didn’t really know what he was asking for. He said, “Here’s what I want. When there’s a bunch of snow outside, I want to be able to work from home but still print stuff at the office”. To which I replied, “So you want me to set up a VPN for you?” The perplexed look on his face gave me all the answers I needed. If your blog about VPN existed back then, I would have certainly sent him this URL. Great job explaining the ins and outs of VPNs.

  8. Chuyong Liu · ·

    Thank you for educating me about VPN! I really need to know more about it. With my experience of being in the US for such a long time for college than an MBA, I found myself in an awkward position whenever I go back to China. I am very used to use Google all the time since many resources and articles can not be found in Baidu. But I have difficulty understand which VPN I should use and tend to find the random free one that pops up in the search result. Now I know from your article that those free ones can have great potential risks. I believe that VPN is also illegal in China, which made it even harder to find a good safe choice.

    Also, I haven’t notice that VPN is actually an extra layer of security! I used to think it is only a tunnel that gives me access to a certain webpage that not allow access outside of certain locations. The secure feature reminded me about blockchain again, I wonder if blockchain technology can be used as a personal VPN that allows us to hide identity and access all networks?

  9. Great post! I didn’t realize that I had a similar topic in my blog posts until I published it. I actually tried a lot of different VPN providers before while I’m in China, but none of them can provide both stable and fast networks for me at the same time. All of them are either “fast but not stable” or “stable but too slow to even send a message out”, so I decided to build my own VPN. After dive deep into the tech side of VPN, I understand that the traditional L2TP/PPTP protocol is already compromised. (at least in China, “the great firewall” relies on AI and data analytics to detect your network activities and compare your activity pattern with the suspicious pattern they found before to block you from accessing certain website even your activity is protected by VPN) The one I build was actually using V2RAY protocol, which not only encrypts your data but also makes the activity pattern look like you are accessing a regular/permitted website. Find more info here: https://www.v2ray.com/en/

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