In the current cyber security landscape, businesses can’t be too careful. More dangerous and damaging risks are constantly emerging, and many of them directly align with enterprise technology trends.
Take, for example, the rise of remote working. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 4.3 million workers now operate from home or locations outside of the regular office at least half the time. What’s more, 50% of the entire American workforce has a position that would lend itself well to partial teleworking, and upwards of 90% percent of U.S. employees say they’d appreciate the ability to work from home part time.
As more staff members work remotely, though, this creates risks surrounding their access to sensitive company data and tools. Without a completely secure connection that helps eliminate the risk of cyber snooping and unauthorized access, these remote employees drive up the digital security threats for their employers.
Enter Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), an advanced solution to enabling security for remote business employees. Let’s take a closer examination of this technology, including how VPN works, the benefits for enterprise users, and how to set one up.
What is a VPN, and how does it work?
A VPN establishes a private, encrypted network connection over the internet. In other words, it enables data to travel through a protected tunnel, from the end user’s device to the corporate network.
As Cisco explains, one can think of a VPN as a protected extension of the main corporate network, accessible from outside of the main office. In this way, employees can work from their home office, the local coffee shop, the airport, or nearly any other location with internet access and still operate in a secure manner as they would from their regular, office desktop computer.
“Because the traffic is encrypted between the device and the network, traffic remains private as it travels,” Cisco states. “Even smartphones and tablets can connect through a VPN.”
Encryption ensures that any data accessed or other actions taken by remote employees are protected and safeguarded from unauthorized, prying eyes that might exist over public Wi-Fi connections.
Why use a VPN?: The problem of public Wi-Fi
One of the main, driving factors supporting the use of VPNs in a business setting is to enable the type of secure connection described above. On the other hand, the alternative is for remote workers to use public Wi-Fi connections at the locations from which they work — be it the airport, local coffee shop, or other location that offers public Wi-Fi.
As CSO contributor Justin Dolly notes, public Wi-Fi connections are notoriously insecure, especially after dangerous flaws were discovered in WPA2, the encryption standard in place on many Wi-Fi networks. This flaw, alongside other security issues, makes it possible for malicious actors to view all activity and data accessed through a public Wi-Fi connection.
For a remote employee working from a coffee shop, for instance, this could equate to highly sensitive information related to company intellectual property, client details, payment and other financial data, and more. Unauthorized access could result in theft or compromise of this information, which could then be leveraged for fraud or other malicious activity.
“When considering whether to connect to the public Wi-Fi network at your local coffee shop, the airport, etc., I have two simple words of advice — don’t and DON’T,” Dolly writes. “Today’s Wi-Fi standards are flawed and should not be trusted … remember anything you do on a public Wi-Fi network is NOT secure. Any information you share or access on these networks is as good as gone.”
The benefits of VPN for businesses
In light of the risks of public Wi-Fi connections, many workplaces have opted to provide VPN access to their remote employees. In addition to enabling a secure connection between remote workers’ devices and the corporate network, there are several other advantages that a VPN can offer for businesses:
- Avoiding breaches and attack: A VPN doesn’t just prevent unauthorized access to data and user activity, it can also help businesses avoid becoming victims of data breaches and cyber attacks. Any highly sensitive information that’s accessed or viewed by cyber attackers over insecure connections can be used as a springboard for attack. For instance, even something as simple as an email to a client can open the door for a specific phishing message, which can lead to malware infection. As Computerworld advisor Andre Bourque points out, keeping employees off of public networks helps considerably reduce the chances that their exposed activity or data will be used to foster a data breach or cyber attack.
- Supporting a globally secure connection: VPNs are also especially important and beneficial for business employees who travel abroad. In some areas like China, users are restricted from accessing certain websites Facebook, for example, is inaccessible to any user leveraging a Chinese-based IP address. In these cases a VPN can prove especially helpful, providing a U.S.-based IP address, even when users are outside of the country.
- Providing peace of mind for customer relations: In addition to offering a secure, encrypted connection for the business’ employees, a VPN can also be advantageous for client information as well. As Bourque notes, explaining how a VPN represents an extra step for information security can help wary customers feel more secure about providing personal information over digital channels.
Configuring a VPN
Another benefit of VPNs is their ease of use — setting up this level of secure connection isn’t as difficult as one might assume. There are an array of different VPN services available today, including those that are installed directly on the Wi-Fi router (such as at a home office location) or through apps deployed directly on user end devices themselves.
When choosing a VPN solution, it’s important to find one that can be set up on multiple devices. Many remote employees work across smartphones, laptops, and tablets respectively, and must be able to use the VPN connection from each endpoint.
As The Verge explains in its article on how to set up a VPN, once you’ve chosen a VPN service, you can create your VPN profile on a Windows device. This profile includes information like the provider name, connection name, server address, sign-in details, and more. Once the profile is filled out, users can add the VPN connection to their Network and Internet Settings, enabling them to choose the VPN just as they would a regular internet or Wi-Fi connection.
VPNs are an essential part of remote security for today’s businesses. You can learn more about VPNs and other security measures through the University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems.