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Guides 4 min read

A Guide to VPN Security

by Emily Heaslip Published Feb 24, 2021

Many people are familiar with VPNs in the context of trying to stream TV shows for free. A VPN can make it seem like you’re in a different country by displaying an IP address in Europe or the US, for instance. Appearing to be in New York while traveling in the Netherlands gives you access to sites like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max — but the advantages of VPN security go beyond streaming the latest TV shows. 

A VPN is an important component of your company’s remote work security features. Corporate VPNs also allow employees to connect securely to corporate networks which may or may not be accessed through a browser. This guide will breakdown what a VPN is, the difference between a VPN and an SDP, how to set up a VPN, and whether a VPN is right for your business. 

[Read more: The 2021 COVID Security Playbook for Remote Organizations

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for “virtual private network”. A VPN opens an encrypted tunnel through which your internet traffic travels, protecting your information from hackers, governments, your internet service provider, and even some advertisers. A VPN is a great way to keep your online activity private from others. 

What does a VPN do? The way it works is quite simple — but effective. When you browse the internet, you connect to various websites using an internet service provider, which gives you a unique IP address. Anything you do on the internet is linked to that unique IP address, meaning your internet service provider can see all the websites you visit. 

A VPN has two parts: a client (e.g., the app on your device or plug-in on your browser) and the server. When you activate the VPN client, it establishes a secure connection to the VPN server. 

“Your traffic still passes through your ISP, but your ISP can no longer read it or see its final destination. The websites you visit can no longer see your original IP address, only the IP address of the VPN server, which is shared by many other users and changes regularly,” explained Express VPN.

Business VPNs differ slightly from those used for personal browsing. Business VPNs provide a secure web connection to the company’s devices, regardless of whether an employee is working from home or from the office. As such, they’re set up to be used by multiple users. “Usually, the business service has one global account, which can be used by multiple users, which are usually the employees,” wrote VPN Crew. “Each employee is given the username and password for the virtual private network connection, and they will each connect to the servers of their choice.” 

The biggest benefit to using a business VPN is that employees can remotely connect to a secure server that hosts data — the encryption used by the VPN means that that connection is completely private. 

For businesses wishing to protect their internet traffic, a VPN is a good option — but not the only way to do so. More and more companies are using what’s known as a “software defined perimeter” (SDP). An SDP cloaks internet traffic at the network level, rather than from an application level. 

“SDP works regardless of whether assets reside on-premises or in the cloud, or whether users are on-site or working remote. Rather than relying on hardware like firewalls or VPNs at the network boundary, SDP leverages software to prevent any access to or even visibility into resources within the virtual perimeter by default,” wrote AT&T Business

The shift to remote work has made software defined perimeters the preferred choice for many businesses. The fact that an SDP can connect employees whether they work from home or the office makes it particularly useful. However, VPNs have historically been more popular, and for non-IT employees, are often more accessible. 

How to set up a VPN

The first step to setting up a VPN is to find a provider that fits your needs. The top-rated VPNs in 2021 by industry analysts are: 

  • ExpressVPN
  • NordVPN
  • Proton VPN
  • CyberGhost
  • Cisco AnyConnect
  • Perimeter 81

Traditional corporate VPNs can be somewhat time-consuming and labor-intensive to set up. “Depending on how many users you have, how many servers you need to provide VPN access to and the budget to accomplish this, it can be a challenging task for smaller companies or those without an existing IT department,” reported Forbes

Setting up a business VPN requires a server running 24/7, dedicated IT support, and network administration on the premises. Today, it’s much more simple to outsource to a cloud VPN provider (like the ones listed above). 

Is a VPN worth it

The short answer is yes, VPNs are a great way to protect your data while working remotely. But, they aren’t a silver bullet for keeping your valuable information safe. 

VPN security sits at the nexus between privacy and security. While a VPN keeps your internet use private, it also protects your valuable data from being accessed. A VPN encrypts your data so that no matter where you and your team are working — a public library or a busy coffee shop — no one can access your online traffic. 

There are some caveats to VPN security. First, not all VPNs are created equal — so-called “free” personal VPNs may not cost money, but they aren’t really free. “Free VPN providers don’t pay for servers and bandwidth out of the goodness of their heart. Case in point: Facebook used to offer a ‘free’ VPN service called Onavo–but it wasn’t really free. You paid for it with your browsing history. People who used Onavo sent all their web traffic through Facebook’s servers, which the company then mined for data,” reported Fast Company.

VPN security focuses on data in motion from your devices to the virtual world; but, it’s important to note that it’s not a comprehensive data loss prevention solution. To completely protect your company’s information, you need to know where your data is within cloud silos and set controls to send an alert when data is accessed or shared by unauthorized users.

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