VPN for dummies: what it is and why you SHOULD care

VPN for dummies: We’ve all heard the term ‘VPN’ being thrashed about in the tech world, but what exactly is it, and what do those letters stand for?

VPN popularity has soared over the past few years due to increased security breaches and privacy violations. Mainly used on desktops, laptops and tablets, research shows that, on average, 1.6 billion people use them, a fifth of the worldwide population! It has also been found that VPNs are most popular in China, Asia and Indonesia. Perhaps more interestingly, a recent study has found that, as of 2023, 93% of organizations currently use a VPN. So what is a VPN, why should we care, and how do they work? Welcome to VPN…for dummies.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, where users can access the internet through encryption. It basically protects people by encrypting their data and masking their IP addresses. It not only hides browsing activity but also user identity and location. The appeal of a VPN is its ability to provide a safer, more secure and, in some cases, freer online experience.

Who uses VPNs?

VPNs are used most by the next generation. Research from the Global Web Index shows that around thirty-nine per cent of all VPN users are between 16 and 22. The reason is that VPNs are mainly used to access streaming services and content only available in certain regions. They are also used to help increase personal security.

When were VPNs created?

VPN technology was first unearthed in 1996 by a Microsoft employee who was, at the time, developing Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (basically a method for implementing private virtual networks). This protocol highlighted the need for private connections between users’ devices and the internet. Although mainly associated with corporations in the early days, their popularity has soared due to online streaming services and open banking.

Photo by Petter Lagson on Unsplash
Photo by Petter Lagson on Unsplash

How do they work exactly?

In a nutshell, they work by directing your device’s internet connection through your chosen VPN’s private server. This means that when your data is sent to the World Wide Web, it comes from this network, as opposed to your laptop or tablet. It also hides your IP (internet address), protecting your identity. What’s great about VPNs is that they are secure, so if your data is compromised, it’s unreadable until it reaches its final destination!

How can I access a VPN?

Believe it or not, it’s very simple. First, you download a reliable VPN. There are a number of types out there, including Nord VPN, Express VPN and Open VPN. Go to settings on your laptop or tablet and access network and internet.’ Click on ‘advanced’ and then ‘VPN.’ From there, you need to click add, fill in the name and server and hit save; you then just need to click on your newly added profile, complete account information, and connect!

Pros and Cons of VPNs

Whilst VPNs have numerous pro points, there are cons also. Some of their more positive parts are that they offer enhanced security and privacy, along with access to geo-restricted content. They also provide protection against cyber attacks. The only negatives would be that they have slow internet speeds, compatibility issues with some devices and legal risks in certain countries.

The future of VPNs

Such is the popularity of VPNs that the future looks bright. Tech experts predict increased competition among VPN providers in 2024 as they become more mainstream. With new providers entering the market, wider features and pricing options and rapid innovation, VPNs show no signs of slowing down.

Rebecca Lee is a journalist and broadcaster of over 23 years. She also works in tech communications with ClearStory International. To date, she has written for and continues to contribute to The Business Post, The Irish Times, The Irish Daily Mail, The Sunday World, and, most importantly, European tech publication 4i Magazine. Rebecca also worked as a radio presenter for 13 years with leading Irish stations Q102 and FM104. Alongside balancing her PR and journalism work, Rebecca moderates events, WebSummit 2022 and Dublin Tech Summit being the most recent.