Virtual private networks, more commonly known as VPNs, have become an important tool for cybersecurity over the last few years. Thanks to the pandemic and the increase in remote work, VPN usage is up all over the world.  As a small business owner, you might be wondering A) what a VPN is, and B) if you need one for your small business.

In this blog, we’re exploring VPN basics. Once you understand what a VPN is and how it works, you should be able to decide whether or not your small business needs to consider using one.  Let’s get to it.

What is a VPN and do you need one for your small business?

What is a VPN anyway?

A VPN is a tool that provides additional privacy and security when using the internet from a public connection. It does this in two main ways.

First, VPNs establish a secure and encrypted connection to the internet. This means that any information that you send or receive over a VPN is safeguarded against bad actors. You can think of encryption somewhat like sending a coded message. When you use encryption technologies, your data is translated from a form that is readily recognizable and understood to one that is unintelligible to outsiders. Only those with access to the encryption key, like those other users connected to the private network, will be able to turn that data back into its original form.

Secondly, when you connect to a VPN server, your IP address is no longer visible to others on the internet. Your IP address works similarly to your home address, except online. It tells others that actions performed online came from your specific internet connection, allowing them to spy on your online activity. By removing visibility of your IP address, it’s much more difficult for bad actors to connect your online activities to your particular location or device. Even if, somehow, your encrypted data was intercepted and understood by a third party, it would be difficult to trace it back to the source.

Using a VPN for your small business adds a layer of security that helps to keep your work product and private information safe from individuals with bad intentions.

If you travel a lot, you may need a VPN to protect your small business.

Why do businesses use VPNs?

According to some estimates, upwards of 40% of cyberattacks are aimed at small businesses. This may be a surprising number, given how much more tempting a large organization would seem to appear. However, enterprise-sized organizations have the resources, and the obvious need, to keep their data secure. Small businesses, on the other hand, are often less likely to adopt appropriate security measures, thus are less protected from outside threats. Additionally, when viewed as a whole, small businesses make up a very significant portion of the overall economy. While small businesses may not have the treasure trove of digital riches cybercriminals are typically after, they are easier targets to infiltrate, and with millions of small businesses throughout the U.S. and the world, they are ubiquitous.

While no technology can provide total security online, VPNs play an important role in helping to keep businesses safer online and can be easy to set up and relatively inexpensive. While there are many options available, it’s very likely that you’ll be able to find a VPN that fits your business needs for a cost of under $150 per year. With increasingly remote and decentralized workforces, a number of businesses see the value of this relatively small investment.

Is it time for my small business to consider a VPN?

There are a few scenarios in which the extra protection of a VPN would be helpful for small businesses. These are some of the top use-cases for VPNs in the workplace.

Regular business travel

Travel is a nearly inevitable byproduct of doing business in the modern world. While we have leaned into remote solutions like teleconferencing recently, there’s still no substitute for a face-to-face meeting with potential or existing clients. Because of this, it’s likely that you’ll periodically need to do work away from the office. It may be tempting to sit down in a coffee shop and knock out the report you need to get done over their free WiFi, but that can actually make you an easy target.

While secured WiFi networks that require a passcode to access are safer than public, unsecured networks that anyone can use, they still can leave you vulnerable. In fact, even with a passcode, it can be very easy for those with malicious intent to get at your data when you are using a public WiFi network. Information like your passcodes or credit card numbers are vulnerable in such environments. By connecting to a public WiFi network through a VPN, you are adding a level of encryption that helps keep your data safe.

If you use your mobile device for work, a VPN may help you protect sensitive data.

Heavy use of mobile devices

Businesses and employees continue to rely more and more on smart devices to keep up with work on the go. Even if you’re not on a long business trip, getting an email or reviewing a spreadsheet over your smartphone while you commute has become largely routine. A particular vulnerability of smart devices, however, is that oftentimes they are set to automatically connect to available WiFi networks near the device. While this can help increase speed when it comes to an internet connection, it’s inherently dangerous for businesses. An employee may automatically connect to an unsecured network that is deliberately set up to trap people’s data, and not even realize it. Setting up VPN access across your organizations’ mobile devices can help mitigate such a risk, and it can keep work flowing uninterrupted.

Follow the leaders

As mentioned earlier, enterprise-sized organizations have the resources, means and need to protect their data as closely as possible. Many larger organizations require that all their employees use a VPN to connect to the internet when working remotely. As VPNs have become more and more widely used, the marketplace has come to expect them as a normal part of doing business. Just like internet access has become a necessity in modern business, VPNs are starting to as well.

Not only can VPNs provide an extra layer of protection, but they are also being more widely viewed as a necessity. Taking a cue from these larger corporations can help to signal that you understand the importance of data security and you are a small business that can become a trusted partner.

Build trust by protecting client information

Similar to partners and vendors that may require certain security protocols to be in place before they enter into a contract with you, it’s likely that your clients want similar assurances. By using a VPN, you are not only protecting your own organization’s data, but you are also protecting any data that is entrusted to you by your clients. Getting a VPN in place for your small business now may help make contract negotiations easier down the road.

Choosing to protect your small business by using a VPN is a personal choice, and one you should fully consider before implementing. Not all VPNs are created equal, and it is important for you to understand the benefits and possible weaknesses of different VPNs before you decide to invest. Now that you have a foundational understanding of VPNs, however, you are prepared to dig in and find a VPN solution that works for you and your small business.

Get more cybersecurity tips and information today from CenturyLink.