This year, working from home has become the “new norm” for a lot of us. For some, that might mean working comfortably from a designated home office with a speedy internet connection and a swivel chair. But for the majority, it means sitting at the kitchen table, blurring your background on video calls and cursing the slow Wi-Fi for disrupting your day, again. Having a remote workforce certainly has its perks, such as reducing the amount your organization spends on office space, but it also presents a huge security issue: most remote employees will be accessing the corporate network from an insecure personal router or, even worse, a public Wi-Fi connection. But worry not! There’s a simple solution that can stop your employees’ internet activity safe from anyone trying to monitor or track it, or even hack into it. That solution is a VPN.
Virtual private networks, or VPNs, create a private network across a public internet connection. They act as a secret tunnel between your employee’s device and the internet, preventing anyone from seeing what that employee is doing inside the tunnel and, as a result, keeping your corporate data secure.
VPN technology isn’t particularly new, but it’s become increasingly popular in the last decade. A detailed study of the VPN ecosystem found that 90% of existing VPN services were founded after 2005, which indicates that, since then, internet users around the world started becoming concerned about their privacy online. In fact, a recent study from CIGI-IPSOS found that 80% of global citizens are concerned about their online privacy.
These figures shouldn’t come as a shock; as the number of cyberattacks had also been steadily increasing during this time. People are increasingly worried about their data online, and businesses are no exception to that. Data loss and unauthorized access to corporate data remain huge concerns for organizations when it comes to a BYOD workforce.
So how can a VPN help address these security challenges and, with so many providers to choose from, what key features should you look for to make sure you’re choosing the best VPN app for your business?
What Is A VPN And How Does It Work?
A VPN acts as a secret tunnel between the user’s device and the internet, through which their internet traffic can securely travel without being seen by anyone else, including the user’s internet service provider. This “tunnel” gives the user anonymity and privacy, reducing their digital footprint by hiding their IP (internet protocol) address and securing and encrypting their connections.
The VPN connects the user’s device to its own secure server somewhere else and allows the user to browse using the VPN server’s internet connection. Because the VPN server is in another location, the user can securely access the internet and network resources local to that region, no matter where they are.
While connected via a VPN, the user’s device contacts websites and web-based apps through the encrypted VPN tunnel. All traffic sent from the user’s device to the website, and vice versa, stays securely within the tunnel until it reaches its end destination.
Corporate VPNs usually connect the user to the corporate server, rather than a server controlled by the VPN service. This means that, although anyone outside the VPN tunnel won’t see a user’s IP address or their internet traffic, IT admins can, because they’re a part of that corporate network.
Long story short: if you’re reading this as an employee, don’t try to access anything on the corporate VPN that you wouldn’t look at if you were in the office.
Why Do You Need A VPN?
Having a strong VPN in place is absolutely crucial when you’ve got any number of remote employees. Firstly, it hugely reduces the risk that a user will fall victim to a cyberattack. When users surf the internet on an unsecured Wi-Fi connection, anyone else using the same connection can tap into what they’re doing. This means that attackers can hack into a personal router or simply sign on to a public Wi-Fi network and access an unsuspecting user’s “private” traffic, including their browsing habits and any private corporate information that they access. By encrypting each user’s connection, a VPN secures employees’ online activity against any unauthorized access. Modern VPN applications install this encryption tunnel, and also come with built-in firewalls to provide protection against viruses and malware, as well as connection hacks.
Secondly, a VPN can increase your employee productivity by giving them geo-independence. This works on two levels:
- Employees who are particularly security-savvy might be wary of logging in via public networks. If they travel a lot while they’re working, such as for conferences, this means there will be a lot of down-time when the aren’t able to access company data on the road. A VPN app would provide travelling employees with the secure connection they need to access your organization’s network.
- Some employees may need to travel abroad as pat of their role, and there are a number of countries that have strict internet access laws that could block those users from accessing corporate resources. A VPN allows these users to access resources as if they were still in their company’s origin country. On top of this, it makes sure that all company correspondence represents your organization’s home base, to absolve any issues that might arise from partners receiving (and more particularly, not trusting) an email from overseas.
Finally, a VPN provides affordable security. This is really important for organizations that don’t have a large security budget. A VPN app provides relatively low-cost, high-level encryption of data in transit, protected access to web-based apps and services, and secure authentication of any user trying to access the network remotely.
What Key Features Should You Look For In A VPN?
1. Up-To-Date Mobile App
There are two parts to this: firstly, the VPN service needs to offer mobile support, not just client software for PCs, so that it can protect your entire device fleet. Secondly, it’s important that the provider keeps their app up-to-date with any operating system updates, so that you can be sure it’ll perform efficiently and effectively regardless of when you installed it.
If a VPN provider doesn’t openly advertise on their website how often they update their app, you can easily check on the app store when it was last updated.
2. Integrated Kill Switch
No cybersecurity solution is 100% secure, which is why we always recommend that you use implement multiple layers of protection across your systems. Even the best VPN apps are no exception to this – if a VPN service is overloaded, this can cause an IP leak, which causes the VPN connection to fail and exposes the user’s true IP address when they’re online.
A VPN kill switch cuts off a device’s network access if this happens, stopping the transfer of any unencrypted data and preventing the user’s IP address from being leaked.
3. Clear Data Logging Policy
Let’s get one thing straight: all VPNs log some user data in order to be able to limit the number of devices connecting to the server and provide customer support. So the important thing here is not whether the VPN provider is logging your data, but what data they’re logging. Usually, this just includes IP addresses and session times. However, some (usually free) VPN services also log the software the user uses, the websites they visit and even the files they download.
When you’re trying to find the best VPN app for your business, make sure that you read their data logging policy to find out exactly what information it’ll store, and to ensure that they’re being transparent about it – you don’t really want to invest in a solution that’s knowingly trying to deceive you.
4. Multiple Server Locations
When a VPN connects a user’s device to the VPN server, the user’s device adopts the IP address of that web server, which can make it seem as though the user is in a different geographic location to where they actually are. It’s important that your VPN app has servers in all of the locations where your organization stores data that employees need to access, and where your employees will be accessing data from. This will help to keep the connection at an efficient speed. On top of that, the more servers the VPN service has, the less likely they are to become overloaded and slow down the connection.
5. Support For Multiple Protocols
A VPN protocol is a set of rules that establish the connection between the VPN client (the software installed on the user’s device) and the VPN server. There are a lot of different VPN protocols out there, but the most common among them are OpenVPN, PPTP, IPSec, SSTP, SSL and SSH. Each of these has it’s own pros and cons, usually in terms of their level of security and the speed with which they can connect a user to the internet.
Most VPN apps give you a selection of protocols to choose from, and it’s important that you find the one that best meets your organization’s needs. OpenVPN, for example, runs on open source software and is one of the most secure protocols currently in use; since it isn’t owned by any one company, programming experts all around the world can freely test, improve and verify it.
6. Centralized Management
When it comes to rolling out a VPN app across your organization, it’s really important that the solution you choose features a centralized management console form which you can manage user accounts and control access permissions. The best VPN apps even include role-based access or “gateway” management, which means that users can only access the parts of the network that they need to be able to do their job.
From the console, IT admins should be able to set up and remove accounts, as well as see which devices employees are using to access the VPN.
Finally, some VPN apps include IP whitelisting capabilities, which allow admins to whitelist their organization’s IP addresses exclusively to make sure that only users with verified IPs can access corporate resources. This means that the organization has more granular control over who can access the network, and from which devices.
Now more than ever, it’s crucial for organizations to secure the ways in which their remote employees connect to their corporate networks and, with so many different endpoints out there, this can seem like quite a challenge. A VPN app is a relatively low-cost solution but can provide powerful protection for any corporate data being transferred to and from remote devices over unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Notice that I said “can” there – that’s because the VPN market is huge, with each solution offering slightly different capabilities and strengths. Because of this, it’s really important that you evaluate your business need for a VPN, such as the number of users you need to secure and the protocol you want to use, and choose the solution that best meets this need.
To help you with this, we’ve put together a guide to the top business VPNs, which gives you details on the vendor, the key features of each solution, and a recommendation on who it’s suitable for.