Ask the Expert: What Exactly Is a VPN?

VPN
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Q: I keep hearing the term VPN, but what exactly is it, and how would it work on my computer?

A: A virtual private network, or VPN, is a technical term for the type of service that PRIVATE WiFi™ provides.

The phrase “secure tunnel” is sometimes used as well. It means pretty much the same thing.

“Virtual Private Network” or “secure tunnel” simply means that your communications are secured and protected as they travel between your computer and our servers. We do this by encrypting the data at one end and decrypting it on the other. This protects hackers from intercepting your communications, particularly at the most vulnerable point, which is the hop from your laptop, over the airwaves in a wifi hotspot, such as a coffee shop, hotel room, or airport lounge.

Strictly speaking, the sentence above is not true.  Hackers could still intercept what is being sent, but it would look like gibberish. For example, the previous sentence, when encrypted by PRIVATE WiFi, would look as follows:

¨PGPÁÀL±@‘‚œýsžE »¡·Ô:ÞÔ̇=+á@£à"| œ×Éãþp9AGõæ÷™¨ÓcøxŸ‡5*
dz½¿”Ð(ëW5GfÚÎÏþ÷ÒíÙÒ
Éàá4ªŠŸÎ&Áz¨/c'!o-ìH*)ËiÙ¶F¾¥›šJ“ðݼp-
ÉÇ4p³Á{dölPB5ý«=øxóJœ>ˆiÃŽ\Œ¬þÜEêB %¥ß×ú¤Ú¡)Ø°vËN]
=6¾M¦æ¢š.[>3àŸ‰ißBæ=G¤±-üv51âêKÒ/^’| Þ

Large companies generally provide a VPN for their employees who travel. And the “tech geeks” have been using them for years. But small- and medium-sized companies generally do not have the IT support to implement them either. Unfortunately, the majority of people simply do not have access to a VPN either.

That’s why we sometimes refer to PRIVATE WiFi as “the VPN for the rest of us.”

As you may have noticed, we minimize the use of terms such as “VPN and “Secure tunnel” because they are computer/security industry terms, and our intent is to make the protection of PRIVATE WiFi available to the general public.

If you want a more formal definition, of VPN, Wikipedia does a pretty good job:

A virtual private network (VPN) is a computer network that uses a public telecommunication infrastructure such as the Internet to provide remote offices or individual users secure access to their organization’s network. It aims to avoid an expensive system of owned or leased lines that can be used by only one organization.

It encapsulates data transfers using a secure cryptographic method between two or more networked devices which are not on the same private network so as to keep the transferred data private from other devices on one or more intervening local or wide area networks.

Editor’s note: Have another security-related question for Kent? Leave your question below in the comments and Kent will answer your topic — no issue is too big or too small — in an upcoming “Ask the Expert” column.

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Kent Lawson

Kent Lawson is the CEO & Chairman of Private Communications Corporation and creator of its flagship software PRIVATE WiFi. He combined his extensive business and technical experience to develop PRIVATE WiFi in 2010. The software is an easy-to-use Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects your sensitive personal information whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network. Follow Kent on Twitter: @KentLawson.