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What is a VPN and how does it keep company data safe? What is a VPN and how does it keep company data safe?
Working from home means VPNs are in widespread use. Here's how they work and why they are necessary. What is a VPN and how does it keep company data safe?

In this unprecedented time of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are working from home with the help of a VPN. This is largely thanks to the mammoth efforts of IT departments gearing workers up for this new reality by any means necessary.

Laptops and 3G dongles have been issued, collaboration software like Teams has been installed, and we’re now at home having virtual meetings and collaborating remotely as best we can to do our jobs without actually leaving our homes.

This is how the country is attempting to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic, in a bid to buy ourselves some time.

Introducing the VPN

None of this is news to readers, of course. What might be new is the notion of VPNs, or “Virtual Private Networks”, which many of us are now using to connect to our workplace networks.

And while VPNs are doing what they are supposed to do and we’re working just fine, it might not be completely clear how that’s happening, or why a VPN is even necessary.

This article will attempt to explain both of those things, because while it’s fine to use something without knowing exactly how it works, it’s always better to deepen one’s knowledge.

First, let’s go over the “Why?”

A VPN’s purpose is to secure a connection between locations; in this context, it’s from the worker’s home network to their company’s network.

The VPN does this by protecting the connection with strong encryption, which is a method of transmitting data in such a way that only the intended recipient can actually know the contents of that data stream.

The very nature of home networks means that they are, at the very least, less secure than the company’s network. This is a safe assumption, as employees’ home routers aren’t subject to the same stringent security checks and standards, and they can be functioning with out-of-date firmware, they could already be infected by malware, or they may not be using the security features that are built in.

Even if the employee’s only oversight is a router whose firmware is out of date, that remains a risk to the company, as it means that router could be a potential entry point into their network by a hacker.

Once in, a hacker could steal company data or discover passwords to company resources – both highly dangerous breaches that cost time and money to fix. Not to mention massive reputation damage that’s far harder to address.

By establishing this virtual private connection, the company is enabling workers to connect to their network from home, and to have remote access to all of the same resources that they would have if they were sitting at their desk, at company HQ.

And that is the “why” of a VPN.

Now for the “how”

A VPN achieves its aims by establishing a secure “tunnel” to the corporate network from the remote user’s home connection.

The home PC connects to the worker’s internet service provider (ISP), the ISP connects to the VPN server, and that server encrypts the connection and sends it on to the VPN server on the corporate network.

The encryption of this “tunnel” is near-impossible to break, and gives the company total control over the traffic that’s allowed over it. This protects the company network from threats that may originate from the remote worker’s network.

Now, all of the network traffic that the home PC sends appears to originate from the VPN server it’s connected to.

This is also how it’s possible to fool other devices on the internet into believing that your PC is physically located somewhere it’s not. By connecting to a VPN server in another country, for all intents and purposes, your PC is located in that country.

A popular use of commercial VPN services is for enabling people to watch content (Hulu/Netflix/Disney+ etc.) that isn’t officially available in their country. Some services have cracked down on this, but it’s still possible.

Downsides?

The only downside of using a VPN is that it can slow down the speed of your internet connection: instead of going straight to the requested resource, all traffic is routed through the VPN servers.

This adds extra jumps along the route and thus slows down the connection’s overall speediness.

Now you know

And that, in a nutshell, is what you need to know about a VPN. Hopefully now you have a better understanding of why they are so useful, and how they are vital to any organisation’s efforts to keep data and network resources safe when being accessed from network nodes outside of their control.

Like, say, in a pandemic where as many people as can work from home, are working from home.

Stay safe out there!

[Image by Dan Nelson from Pixabay]

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