Between 2002 and 2016, the number of Americans working remotely up to four or five days a week rose from 24% to 31%. Reported by Gallup, this figure underscores the growing trend of remote labor—and its potential to transform the way employers run their businesses. Indeed, as the nature of work changes and as technology allows teams to connect with one another in increasingly dependable ways, many businesses are saving money by allowing employees to work from home or other locations as needed.
This is where a Virtual Private Network (VPN) comes in. With a VPN connection, it’s possible for team members working remotely to route their online activity through a server that connects them directly to their company’s network. It’s essential that your clients understand how VPN works to ensure they are using it to its full potential without exposing the business to any risks. Here, we’ll explain how VPN services work, and how you can support clients in using them effectively.
How a VPN connection could protect your clients
The trend toward remote work offers a range of benefits for businesses, such as employee flexibility, reduced spend on office space, and more. However, it does come with its own challenges. Namely, organizations need to determine how they can best protect their networks and proprietary data when a considerable percentage of their employees are doing work from personal devices and on public networks.
Without proper protection, employees connected to a business’ network from home may be putting corporate information at risk. This is because accessing the internet over a completely public network—i.e., through a regular internet service provider (ISP)—exposes devices and online activity to bad actors. This isn’t to say that every time an employee conducts work from a remote location they’re putting private information at risk. However, without any kind of safeguard, it does make it easier for anyone intent on intercepting their information to do so.
For many of your clients, the answer is a VPN corporate network. This technology can actually connect entire branch offices to central headquarters, allowing teams in geographically spread-out organizations to work together, share important information, and stay on the same page.
What does a VPN do?
For those wondering how a VPN connection works, it allows a user to access private networks, such as the company’s intranet, through public networks like the internet. While the exact setup may differ depending on the particular circumstances—for example, VPNs created for remote workers will look different than those created to link branch offices with headquarters—the idea remains the same.
Essentially, a VPN uses client software to connect a device through a secure server to a private network somewhere else. What’s unique about VPNs, however, is that they create something of a tunnel through which connected users can operate safely and securely across the internet. This means that even while an employee is using a public network that includes a range of threats, the VPN server creates a private pathway through which your data and online activity can pass without outside interference.
To create these tunnels, a VPN connection does something called encapsulation, a process in which packets of data are placed within additional packets, which are then encrypted. This simultaneously protects that data from unauthorized access and allows information to move through a private network. When a connection is made between the client and the intended access point—such as your company’s internal network—those packets are opened only by interfaces that have the protocol to do so.
Many companies find that a VPN corporate network offers a range of benefits. For instance, remote workers and far-flung branch offices can transmit data quickly and securely across a company VPN, confident that only those entities that should have access to their information will be able to access it. The model is also easy to scale as needed, allowing corporations expanding their remote workforce or adding new locations to grow without compromising data security.
Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?
The extent to which VPNs make you invisible to tracking is limited. On one hand, they make it difficult for your ISP to track your exact activity, which normally means observing your browsing history to sell advertisers. On the other hand, there are still digital markers that may betray your behavior and identity to websites or your ISP.
While corporations are increasingly turning to VPNs to provide their remote workers and separate branch offices with secure access to their own intranet, individual users are also beginning to rely on VPN services. The exact motivation behind each person’s use of a VPN differs, but the option has become popular for those looking to protect their online activity from scrutiny, particularly surveillance from government organizations, bad actors, or ISPs attempting to sell their personal information.
In the absence of a VPN, your ISP can track your online activity with abandon. The same goes for anyone with the tools to do so, whether you’re at home or connecting to Wi-Fi at a coffee shop. By using a VPN, your data becomes encrypted, meaning that the specifics of your activity would be unintelligible even to anyone who was able to look at it. What’s more, your VPN operates between your device and the internet, and that makes it difficult for anyone to see what websites you visit or what exactly you’re uploading or downloading.
With that said, you’re not fully anonymous while using a VPN, and some forms of tracking are still possible. While your IP address will be concealed in place of one assigned to you by the VPN, it’s still your IP address connecting to the VPN before you venture out onto the internet. This means that, while your ISP may not be able to see your data specifically or see where exactly you’re going, it will have an idea of what you’re doing based on what is actually coming back through your individual IP address.
Accordingly, the added measure of security that VPNs provide should be considered part of an overall cybersecurity strategy rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, while your data will be protected and it will be more difficult for third parties to see what you’re doing once you go online, you would still need a firewall to protect your data on your actual device.
How does a VPN work on a cell phone?
While we may think of the average remote employee as someone working on a laptop from home, in their hotel room, or at a coffee shop, more and more workers are conducting business on their phones. From sending work emails to accessing and sharing sensitive documents and information, businesses need to ensure that their team members have a secure way to use their mobile devices in a professional capacity.
Thankfully, VPN functionality doesn’t differ much between computers and mobile devices. The employee would still connect to a VPN server from their device, rely on the VPN to encrypt the data and set up a virtual tunnel, and access private networks on the other end of the connection. In this situation, the endpoint that decrypts data happens to be operating on a phone rather than a computer.
For workers to connect to a VPN from their phones, an IT team would have to develop a specific set of instructions for them to access it. While a number of apps are available from private companies that operate their own VPN servers, businesses may understandably prefer to have workers connect with VPNs of their own design. To do so, workers can access the VPN controls on their mobile devices and follow IT’s lead as to how to get everything set up properly.
With that said, there are some unique considerations that need to be taken into account for VPNs operating from a phone. For example, anyone who regularly connects to Wi-Fi from their mobile device knows that sometimes connectivity will go in and out. If your phone switches back and forth from a cellular data network to a Wi-Fi network while connected to a VPN, that secure connection could be dropped and leave employees exposed.
Is it legal to use a VPN?
In most countries, including United States and the United Kingdom, using a VPN is perfectly legal. However, this isn’t the case everywhere. For example, some regimes around the world restrict access to VPNs for a number of political, social, and religious reasons—Russia, Turkey, and China included. In stricter countries, such as Iran and North Korea, access to VPNs is prohibited outright.
For some, the relative anonymity and security that VPNs provide may seem like an invitation to illicit or illegal activity. In that instance, any illegal activity carried out over a VPN is still illegal. Torrenting copyrighted material such as movies and music is still against the law, even if it’s hard for authorities to tell you’re the one doing it.
What’s more, government bodies can still subpoena information from VPN providers about their users, meaning that no one is completely off the grid just because they’re accessing the internet through a VPN. While some VPN services claim not to log the activity of those who use their servers, many do, and anyone committing illegal activities behind a VPN is still liable for any damages caused.