The growing reliance on technology, coupled with the growing threat of intrusion and cyberattacks, demands greater security in the online world.
October is Cyber Security Awareness Month, and the growing reliance on technology, coupled with the growing threat of intrusion and cyberattacks, demands greater security in the online world. One source of security that many turn to is the virtual private network, or VPN.
VPN is a technology that enables secure communication over the unsecured public Internet, essentially extending a user’s work network into their home network in a secure manner, without letting their ISP, ISP, or intermediary routers be able to monitor content.
“When we use the Internet to browse a website or send and receive email, data is broken up into small pieces called packets, and these are routed through multiple networks and routers to and from different servers,” said Ragib Hasan, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Computer Science, Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences. “A VPN essentially creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between the user and the destination server. The VPN software installed on the user’s computer encrypts packets so that only the intended destination server can decrypt them. Anyone listening at the middle will not be able to see the contents of the packet and therefore listen to the communication or monitor the web pages visited by the user.
A common use of a VPN is private anonymous web browsing. In this mode, a web page visitor’s request for the page is first sent to the VPN server over an encrypted connection. The VPN server fetches the webpage, encrypts the page, and sends it back to the user through the VPN. Therefore, the ISP does not see the URL of the web page or the individual pages visited by the user.
Benefits of a VPN:
• Reduces the risk of identity theft and phishing
• Prevents breach of privacy • Allows access to information in restrictive countries
• Provides employees with access to corporate networks without opening confidential business information on the fly
What additional security measures does a VPN provide over firewalls or other antivirus software?
A VPN has many additional security benefits. First, it offers a high level of privacy to users.
“Without a VPN, the ISP can monitor every website the user visits,” Hasan said. “This information can be used to profile the user as well as being sold to marketers. In countries with repressive governments, this type of surveillance has often been used to identify and oppress dissidents.
Hasan, director of the UAB SECRETLab, adds that a VPN can hide user’s location or IP addresses on websites. The website will only see the IP address of the VPN server and not the actual IP address of the user because the communication is routed through the VPN server.
“When a business user uses a public network or hotel network to access their work email, they run the risk that their confidential communications or email content/attachments may be monitored or viewed by parties malicious,” Hasan said. “With a VPN, the user can securely access the corporate network or email through an encrypted tunnel, which means that malicious eavesdroppers cannot record their confidential communications.”
A VPN allows users to escape regional censorship by oppressive governments. In many countries, oppressive regimes block access to information. A VPN can allow such blocks and allow users to freely access information.
Are VPNs Necessary Only for Business? How necessary are they for consumers in general?
VPNs aren’t just necessary for businesses, but rather useful for people who frequently use an untrusted public network to access their content, according to Hasan.
This allows regular users to access websites or check emails without fear that their activities or locations will be monitored and their privacy violated. VPNs also reduce the risk of many attacks such as spoofing and phishing.
“As more and more users turn to working from home during and after the pandemic, a VPN is essential because it allows the user to access corporate networks without opening confidential work information. to theft and surveillance by malicious parties,” Hasan said. “Users who work from home should use a secure VPN to access their corporate network.”
What are the limits of a VPN?
As with any security technology, the security of a VPN-based system is only as strong as the weakest link.
While the VPN allows users to use an untrusted network, the VPN server has full knowledge of the user’s activities, including the websites they visit and the content they access.
“For the company’s various internal VPN servers, that’s usually not an issue,” Hasan said. “However, many people use commercial VPN services, many of which log user activities.”
Some of these services are even located outside of the United States and therefore fall outside the legal jurisdiction of the United States.
“The anonymity of a VPN goes no further,” he said. “The VPN server can see the user’s IP address and the content the user is accessing.”
VPNs also reduce performance due to complex encryption protocols. As all communication must be encrypted and decrypted while using a VPN, it reduces the connection speed. Commercial VPN services are not always free. Due to the anti-censorship nature of VPNs, some countries also ban VPN services outright.