In the last few years, Virtual Private Networks or VPNs have gone from underground to mainstream. Still thought of by many as going hand in hand with the Dark Web, VPN apps are picking up popularity with everyone from aging expats to businesspeople – no longer solely the domain of would-be hackers and teenagers looking to access Facebook at school.
Designed to add a heavy layer of encryption to the data you send and receive online, Virtual Private Networks also hide their users’ device IP address and location. This selling point, widely embraced as a way to watch international streaming services without restriction, is why some people still think of VPNs as most suited to those who are up to no good. Because who needs anonymity when they’ve got nothing to hide?
The truth is, browsing anonymously is a great way to avoid targeted ads – and to stop your Internet Service Provider or any sites you visit from selling your browsing data to third parties. But even if you’re not bothered by eerily specific advertising appearing from all directions, the security a VPN can offer things like online banking transactions and important personal exchanges shouldn’t be overlooked.
Personal banking security
One reason so many people are adopting VPN use is to protect their bank accounts and transactions. When you log on to your bank’s mobile site to check an account or make a payment, there are a number of ways your activity can be intercepted. Man-In-The-Middle attacks targeting online banking are a growing problem, and in many cases, victims don’t know that anything is amiss until it’s too late.
The specific details of technical hacks like SSL stripping may seem complex to the casual observer, but it’s worth knowing the minimum – that this type of attack removes layers of security from banking and e-commerce websites, leaving the data you enter within them exposed. The worst part? To the user, it’s usually impossible to know when a hacker has come between you and whatever it is that you’re doing.
Experian’s 2018 Global Fraud and Identity Report noted that 88% of smartphone and laptop owners use their devices for online banking, and with online banking fraud increasing at a dramatic rate each year, it’s worth knowing how to protect against it.
VPN apps can ensure that even if your bank’s website is stripped of its security, for example when a third party tries steal bank details or even change payee accounts, hackers won’t have any success. The layer of end-to-end encryption a VPN gives your data starts before it’s even left your device so that only the intended recipient can view the information at hand.
If a third party does try to intercept or re-route your connection and view that data, all they’ll see are encryption keys – long strings of alphanumeric characters that seem completely random, and can’t be translated back into worthwhile information.
Targeting life events
We all like to think it won’t happen to us, but high-profile cyber attacks haven’t always just happened to big corporations. In some cases, individuals and families have found themselves the victims of seriously costly internet crime.
A key example of this is in email fraud that has targeted home buyers. Hackers have been intercepting emails between people who are organizing house purchases and their solicitors, either editing the content of those emails so that money is transferred to their own accounts instead of the solicitors’, or simply creating highly convincing fake emails from outside accounts requesting payment information.
Conveyancing fraud costs the victims hundreds of thousands of pounds, on average, with well-publicized examples including a couple who lost £120,000 because of a hacked and edited email. Headlines have covered people losing anything from £60,000 to more than £1 million through this type of fraud – and while it’s a tricky one to avoid, it’s another area where added encryption is a big help.
Many email services transfer mail with very basic encryption protocols, like Transport Layer Security or TLS. While better than nothing, this kind of encryption is ‘point-to-point’ meaning that at each part of your data’s journey – like reaching the email server and then being sent on to the destination – there are periods where that data is not encrypted.
This makes it seriously easy to hack when compared with the end-to-end encryption provided by a VPN, often using military-grade encryption protocols, which ensures that there are no unsecured stop-offs for whatever you’re sending and receiving.
This isn’t just useful when you’re spending big money on things like a new house or car – it’s also worthwhile when you’re sending emails that contain personal data that could be used to guess your online account passwords or to trace your address for use in other kinds of fraud.
Potentially less of a worry for individuals, but something many employers are concerned with is data security while working from home or on the move. There’s been a dramatic rise in the number of people classed as full-time mobile workers in recent years, with more than 72% of the American workforce set to be mobile by 2020. As a result, people are starting to think more about exactly how secure their work documents and client data are when accessed from home networks and free public Wi-Fi.
For digital nomads and everyday home workers, it’s important not to wind up being the cause of a major data breach at your organization. Your boss should be taking precautions against it, and if you are your own boss, the pressure is on you.
Whether it’s emailing important data or accessing sensitive files, the need for good encryption can’t be stressed enough. Particularly in the case of public Wi-Fi in coffee shops and on trains, there may be little to no encryption on the network at all. That means that if someone does want to access your connection, it would only take a split second to make off with files and data.
Whether you’re looking to turn unsecured Wi-Fi into your own private network or just want to add solid security to financial transactions, it’s safe to say that a VPN could be the answer. While they are still a popular tool for watching American Netflix in the UK or logging onto social media from a blocked school or work account, VPNs are making waves in everyday privacy and security too.
As major names in cybersecurity catch on to the trend and start to offer their own VPN services, it’s increasingly easy to find user-friendly apps with good reputations. Take the time to find one that suits you, and you can give your personal information the extra protection it needs without the need for serious technical know-how.