A beginner’s guide to VPNs

Tuesday, 24 March, 2020

The digital world can be a confusing place if you’re not computer-literate, and it’s often easier to avoid something than adopt it.

That’s particularly true for virtual private networks, also known as VPNs.

The terminology surrounding this secure data connection seems baffling to newcomers. Protocols, IPSec, tunnelling, secure sockets…it’s like watching an episode of 24.

It’s probably easier not to bother.

Yet the reality is that VPNs are as simple to use as a web browser, while offering considerably more security for end users.

Here’s what you need to know.

The antisocial network

As its name suggests, a virtual private network is a method of privately transmitting data between a specific device you own and the wider internet.

Normally, information distributed online is logged by your ISP, tracked by third parties through cookies and search histories, and could even be monitored by agents of the state.

It isn’t difficult for someone with a vested interest to check what data your broadband router has distributed and received recently.

A VPN makes this impractical by establishing a private network where data is encrypted before being sent, using a variety of encryption standards.

You’ll hear terms like AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and asymmetric encryption, but you don’t need to worry about the logistics of how two-step key exchanges operate.

Simply know that the encryption process turns binary data sent down your phone line or cable connection into indecipherable characters which wouldn’t make sense to anyone else.

An encryption key is shared between your device and the VPN provider of your choice, with the latter effectively acting as a gatekeeper to the wider internet.

On benefits

There are several benefits to getting started with a VPN:

  1. Privacy. There’s very little risk of hackers and criminals being able to access personally identifiable information (PII) while you’re connected through a VPN.
  2. Geolocation. Broadcast restrictions often seem unfair, like local radio stations you can’t listen to outside a certain radius. Geospoofing masks your location for unrestricted access.
  3. Anonymous file sharing. Peer-to-peer file sharing platforms haven’t disappeared. They’re thriving on VPNs, with protocols like BitTorrent great for sharing files with people.
  4. Bolstering public networks. Public WiFi networks are notoriously insecure, but a VPN can make them safe for essential tasks like online banking, confidential work emails, etc.
  5. Remote device access. If your PC or Mac develops a fault, a VPN can allow tech staff anywhere in the world to access your computer and repair it remotely.
  6. No tracking. If you’re fed up with sidebar ads on webpages promoting things you Googled last month, a VPN ensures advertisers can’t target you based on PII.

Tips for getting started with a VPN

Firstly, do some research into different providers. Our sister site VPNs.co.uk is a great resource for getting started with a VPN.

Some VPNs are free while others charge a fee. Free ones tend to impose non-targeted advertising or restrict usage and speed, in an attempt to cover their operating costs.

Customer service tends to be less comprehensive from free providers, though speeds may be slightly higher since their levels of security aren’t quite as extensive as paid VPNs.

Next, check if your preferred VPN keeps any logs. These can compromise user anonymity to a degree, so it’s best to avoid any providers who insist on retaining connection logs.

Also check if your chosen provider offers a kill switch. This sounds ominous, but it simply ensures your device won’t continue accessing the internet if the VPN fails or goes offline.

Installing a VPN is as simple as downloading your chosen package and registering an account with a username and password – and payment details, if it’s a paid platform.

Encryption means VPNs are slower than an unprotected internet connection, so check your bandwidth is sufficient for desired activities like video streaming.

Finally, the best way to familiarise yourself with a VPN is to play about with it. Build up confidence and put it through its paces before starting to use it in earnest.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!