What Is A VPN?
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a cybersecurity tool used to create a protected, secure network, within a public network. This is achieved through masking your IP address (the unique number that identifies the device that you are using). VPNs are of value to a business that needs to handle sensitive data and manage staff access from multiple locations.
Your devices are most vulnerable to attack when you log-in to an unsecured public Wi-Fi network. Hackers can position themselves between your device, and the ISP (Internet Service Provider), which allows them to see all the information you are requesting, and the sites you are visiting. Not only can hackers see what you are doing, they can plant malicious software onto your system to monitor your activity, and even steal data. This is known as a man-in-the-middle attack.
Although these threats are serious, they are relatively easy to combat. By using a VPN server, your data is sent through an encrypted tunnel, making it impossible for hackers, governments, or anyone else, to access that data. This means you can ensure all sensitive company information is kept private.
In this article, we will discuss how VPNs work and why they are important, to help you decide if a VPN is a security tool your business should invest in.
How Does A VPN Work?
A VPN is much like a tunnel that takes information to your device without being identified. This secure tunnel prevents external parties from reading what data is passing through the tunnel, meaning that your activity is kept private.
When you use a VPN, your ISP will be unable to identify who is accessing the data, as your IP address has been re-routed through multiple different VPN servers. This is significant because it means that the ISP (companies like AT&T and Comcast) is unable to view your activity. VPNs can mitigate the risk of man-in-the-middle attacks by preventing anyone accessing your data as it passes from the ISP to your device. Not only does this keep your data safe, but it also prevents hackers from disguising harmful software and planting malware onto your device.
As well as making it harder for your data to be identified, VPNs use high level encryption to ensure that even if the data is accessed, it will be unintelligible to anyone without the means to decrypt it. The highest standard of encryption currently used by providers is AES 256-bit encryption (Advanced Encryption Standard). This level of encryption is the gold standard as there are 2^256 possible combinations. Hackers would have to successfully work out a number 78 digits long, to hack into your server. It is simply not feasible for a computer to go through all these combinations as it would take billions of years to find the right sequence. On top of this, AES 256-bit encryption uses 14 rounds of encryption, making it the most secure type of AES encryption.
Business Benefits Of VPNs
The main reason to use a VPN is to ensure your staff and sensitive data are secure from malicious third parties. Encrypted end-to-end data means that you can control who has access to information. As businesses become more reliant on the internet and international markets, the opportunities for hackers increase. 2021 saw a 107% year-over-year increase in ransomware and extortion operations on the previous year. By using a VPN, you can ensure that your data and your customers’ data is protected from malicious parties.
Hackers are constantly searching for new and creative ways of obtaining your data. One vulnerability, that you might not expect, is the digital assistants and smart products in your home or office, often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). There are reports of hackers accessing video doorbells to obtain footage of who is entering and exiting. To do this, hackers gain entry to your devices through an unsecured Wi-Fi network. You might connect to a legitimate sounding Wi-Fi network (perhaps in the name of a local coffee shop), but this is actually a rogue network set up by the hackers. Once connected, they can access your data and plant malware.
There are many types of malware that a hacker can install on your device if they manage to gain access, some of the common types include “bots”, ransomware and cryptojacking. When malware is used to override your system and take control of it, your device is known as a “bot” and can be used as part of a DDoS attack (Distributed Denial of Service). The hacker then uses multiple bots from many locations to simultaneously send a request to a specific IP, causing that server to become overwhelmed and crash, preventing normal traffic from flowing. Ransomware results in you being locked out of your own files until you pay ransom money to the hackers. Cryptojacking malware uses your computing power to generate cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum. With cryptojacking malware, you might not know that your computer has been targeted, aside from higher power usages and a slowdown in computer performance. In all these cases, a VPN can prevent these attacks by ensuring that no malicious parties can gain access to your devices.
Manage Remote Access
As many businesses adapt to a WFH or hybrid model, having secure endpoints is imperative. This means that staff can access sensitive data from a home laptop, work desktop, smartphone, or tablet, and be confident that these devices are secure. This is made possible by a VPN’s “whitelist” feature; access can be denied to all but a few, specific IP addresses. Companies can identify which IP addresses, and therefore who, has access to data and ensure that it is easy for staff, but impossible for external parties. This means that managing who has access is quick and simple.
While this benefit is not a specific feature, it is important to understand how easy a good VPN is to use and install, to ensure you have access to the benefits previously mentioned. Management overheads can be reduced through VPNs’ ease of scalability, and integration.
The user-friendly service, and often round-the-clock customer support ensure that your company always has a VPN expert on hand, without the need to employ one in your team. You do not have to be a technical expert to set up a VPN, and to benefit from using one. VPNs allow novice users to maintain security, whilst allowing for those with technical knowledge to understand and play a more proactive role in the complex security features. When staff connect to the company VPN, management accounts can monitor their employees’ traffic. This means that users can be kept safe from accessing harmful material, and helps companies enforce policies.
As your business grows, your VPN will need to grow too. More users accessing data, and a larger amount of data to be protected, means your VPN will need to suit your business and way of working. Many VPN providers offer a varied range of plans to suit all business sizes, with a raft of features to ensure your VPN can scale as your business does.
VPNs are designed to help you work more effectively through seamless integration with popular third-party providers like AWS, Google Cloud and Azure. You can set up a VPN to route traffic from specific applications through the VPN server, while other, less sensitive information can be reached conventionally.
Risks Of Using A VPN
No Logs Policy
The reason that VPNs are so useful is because they allow you, and only you, to know what information you access. While VPNs prevent malicious individuals from accessing your data, some VPNs create a log of the information you request. For some users, this might defeat the point of using a VPN as it is possible to monitor your usage. When selecting a VPN, look for one with a “no-log policy” to ensure that your data is as private as you expect it to be. If a VPN does log your information, this is another potential target for hackers looking to access your information. It is also helpful to read reviews of VPNs from trusted experts who can understand the layers of encryption and verify the “no-log policy”.
Using a VPN might cause the speed of your connection to slow. As your information is being passed through an additional server, this can result in the data you need taking a longer time to reach you. This decrease is often so small as to not impede your workflow. However, for some business that require the highest connection speeds, or who pass a lot of data very quickly, speed is a factor that is worth keeping in mind. While VPNs are becoming increasingly user friendly, they might take time to set up and get used to. The time taken to install a VPN and understand how it protects you should be considered.
In most of the world, VPN use is completely legal and part of a safe approach to using the internet. In some regions, however, there are restrictions imposed on VPN usage. Often, these restrictions mean that the VPN must be approved by the government and operate within its legal framework. Countries like Russia, Turkey and Oman fall into this category. In India, the law was changed in 2022, meaning that VPN providers must create a log of all user data. The implementation of this law has been delayed due to significant backlash.
Countries like China heavily restrict access to outside content, so a VPN must be approved and licensed by the government. If your employees travelto, or operates in one of these territories, or a territory known for restricting citizens’ access to information, it is worth looking into the laws surrounding VPNs.
With enhanced GDPR laws, working from home, and digital threats becoming more advanced, a VPN is an essential tool that can protect your business. They provide an effective way of securing your sensitive data, and ensure your activity is not watched by a third-party.
VPN providers have responded to the increase in usage by ensuring their services are user-friendly, easy to implement, and, most importantly, effective. Most VPNs will automatically drop your connection if the server comes under attack. This means that you might temporarily lose access, but it ensures that your anonymity is maintained and your data is secure.
If you’re interested in reading more about the different VPNs on the market, visit our Top 10 Enterprise VPN Solutions article.