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What is a VPN and why should I use one?

By Spencer Callaghan
Senior Manager, Brand & Communications

A VPN uses encryption to scramble your data and masks your IP address, hiding your online activity.

You may have heard that a virtual private network (VPN) will help protect your online privacy. But what exactly is it? A VPN provides a secure tunnel between you and a remote server. By creating a private network from a public internet connection, a VPN is a powerful and simple way to protect the information you’re sending and receiving over the internet.

How does a VPN work?

When sending information over a Wi-Fi network, a VPN uses encryption to scramble your data and keep it secure and unreadable along the way. Because your data is exiting the VPN server, it appears to have the internet protocol (IP) address of that server, masking your IP address and hiding your online activity.

Why do I need a VPN?

Many companies use VPN to enable remote workers to access the company intranet as if they were right in the office. When they send files, the data is encrypted until it reaches the organization’s server. But a VPN is also a good idea for personal use.

While your home Wi-Fi network is private and password protected, VPN adds another layer of security. It will also protect your online privacy. Without a VPN, your internet service provider can see your browsing history. With a VPN, your activity is hidden because it is associated with the VPN server’s IP address instead.

A VPN is especially helpful when you are travelling or connecting to public Wi-Fi. Think of all the times you check your email or log in to your bank account while waiting in line at the grocery store. Anyone else using that same network could see your private information or browsing history. With VPN, you can also connect your smartphone or laptop to your home network to securely access files from your home computer.

Choosing a VPN

VPNs are available as browser extensions, device apps or as part of your router. Do some research to find out which type of VPN is best for you. Take note, some VPN services focus solely on masking your online identity, so be sure to choose a VPN that encrypts your data.

Here are some other factors to consider when choosing a VPN:

  • How many servers does the provider have? With more servers, more users can access the internet at faster speeds.
  • Can you set up the VPN on more than one device?
  • What is the company’s privacy policy? Your VPN provider will keep some user information, but some companies have a no-log policy, which means they will not log your online activities.
  • Does the provider have data usage limits?
  • Does the VPN support other devices in your home? Some VPNs can be used on other devices, such as smart TVs and gaming consoles.
  • How much does it cost? While some VPN services are free, you may pay in other ways. Some free services do not include technical support, high connection speeds or the most current security protocols. They may show you frequent advertisements or collect and sell your personal information to third parties.

Things to remember when using a VPN

A VPN will provide added security, but there are few things to keep in mind for extra protection. Never log into a sensitive account when you are not using VPN. In fact, leaving your VPN on at all times will ensure you are protected, especially when logging on using public Wi-Fi.

You should also choose a provider that lets you use multi-factor authentication to secure your VPN account. Multi-factor means you need more than just a password to confirm your identity, such as an additional code that is sent to you by text message or an app that creates a single-use login code.

How is a VPN different from CIRA Canadian Shield?

Good question. CIRA Canadian Shield is not a VPN; it is a private DNS resolver that also offers an optional layer of cybersecurity protection.

A VPN encrypts all your device’s data and sends that information to a server controlled by the VPN provider. This process hides your IP address and prevents your ISP—or anyone else peeking in on your network—from monitoring your traffic. CIRA Canadian Shield only encrypts DNS requests, a task normally undertaken by your ISP.

About the author
Spencer Callaghan

Spencer Callaghan is the senior manager, brand & communications at CIRA. He is a writer, former journalist, and has experience in technology, non-profit, and agency environments throughout his career. His areas of expertise include content marketing, social media, branding, and public relations.