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5 things you need to know about virtual private networks

Lucian Constantin | Nov. 8, 2016
VPNs are important for both enterprise and consumer security

VPNs can bypass geoblocking and firewalls

Consumers also use VPNs to access online content that's not by available in their region, although this depends on how well the content owners enforce restrictions. VPN service providers usually run servers in many countries around the world and allow users to easily switch between them. For example, users might connect through a U.K.-based server to access restricted BBC content or through an U.S.-based server to access Netflix content that's not available in their region.

Users in countries like China or Turkey, where the governments regularly block access to certain websites for political reasons, commonly use VPNs to bypass those restrictions.

Free vs. paid

While companies set up their own VPNs using special network appliances, consumers have a wide selection of commercial and free VPN services to choose from. Free VPN offerings usually display ads, have a more limited selection of servers, and the connection speeds are slower because those servers are overcrowded. However, for the occasional user this just might be enough.

Another downside of free VPN servers, though, is that that it's more likely that the IP addresses they use will be blocked or filtered on various websites: Free VPN services are commonly abused by hackers, spammers and other ill-intentioned users.

Commercial VPN services work on a subscription-based model and differentiate themselves by an absence of download speed throttling or data limits. Some of them also pride themselves on not keeping any logs that could be used to identify users.

A few antivirus vendors also offer VPN services and these could serve as a middle ground between free and the more expensive commercial solutions, as users could get better deals if they also have antivirus licenses from those vendors. Also these VPN solutions already have reasonably secure settings, so users don't have to worry about configuring them themselves.

Build your own

Finally, there's the option to run your own VPN server at home so you can tunnel back and access services and devices on your home network from anywhere. This is a much better option than exposing those services directly to the internet, which is how hundreds of thousands of internet-of-things devices have recently been compromised and used to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks.

The general rule is that the fewer ports are opened in your router, the better. You should disable UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) so that your poorly designed IP camera, for example, doesn't punch a hole through your firewall and becomes available to the whole world.

Some consumer routers have built-in VPN server functionality these days, so you don't even have to set up a separate dedicated VPN server inside your network. Although, if your router doesn't have this sort of feature, a cheap mini computer like Raspberry Pi can do this job just fine.


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