For a $31 billion industry, it’s safe to say the virtual private network sector has remained largely below the public radar.
Many consumers don’t know what a VPN is or how it works, and they’re certainly not inclined to start using a VPN on a smartphone.
Yet that could be a mistake, especially given the volume and nature of threats endlessly circulating in cyberspace.
A virtual private network is exactly what it sounds like – a private digital connection between a user device (in this scenario your smartphone) and a secure web server.
The server effectively acts as a gateway to the wider internet. Online content will flow through it, just as it would flow through a home broadband router en route to a PC or TV.
However, your device and the host server encrypt information before communicating with each other, while the server can also disguise the location of your device.
Instead of identifying you as living at 22 Acacia Avenue, the VPN may pretend you’re overseas, or simply maintain your anonymity by not revealing your precise location.
VPNs are big business, and numerous companies offer smartphone apps.
There’s one big distinction between free and paid VPNs – the latter are completely anonymous, whereas free services may retain some identifying data logs.
This shouldn’t be enough to compromise your privacy, but it does still create a record of certain activities like when you logged on and how long you stayed online.
The when and where
These are some of the scenarios where using a VPN on a smartphone might be beneficial:
- Using a public WiFi network. It’s easy for hackers to intercept data being carried across café or hotel WiFi networks, but a VPN can stop attempted cyber-snooping.
- Accessing geo-restricted content. You might be blocked from using a service you’ve paid for while on holiday abroad. A VPN can pretend you’re still in your home territory.
- Remaining anonymous. Offering greater anonymity than private tabs in normal web browsers, a VPN ensures activities aren’t stored in history files or via cookies.
If you’re worried about online activities being monitored or exploited (such as confidential work data being intercepted), a VPN provides invaluable peace of mind.
It can bolster insecure public networks by ensuring every piece of data is encrypted in a way only the host server and user device can successfully decrypt.
Many companies require their staff to log onto networks using a VPN, especially if they work in industries involving sensitive information, like accounting or legal services.
Installing a VPN is as simple as going into your chosen app store and choosing one of the many packages available to install onto your device.
When you activate the VPN, it will search for a host server. You may be able to choose which country you want the VPN to associate you with, for geolocation purposes.
Once connected, an icon should appear on the device’s menu bar (often a key symbol), indicating any apps or browsers you use will be distributing data through the VPN.
Do bear in mind logging into accounts or accepting cookies will mean your activities are recorded as normal – a VPN merely ensures data you send and receive is encrypted.
The VPN app will run discreetly in the background until you disconnect, though you might notice a slight drop in data transfer speeds, especially on a slower ADSL or 4G connection.