WHAT IS THIS VPN THING?
Stands for Virtual Private Network
Used to connect devices (computers, phones, etc) to networks whether or not said devices are in physical proximity to the network
Typically grant access to resources (websites, applications, computers, etc) not accesible from the internet
Will create a virtual interface on your machine with a distinct IP address
Can be used to secure your traffic as communication is usually encrypted
An explanation for the people
For those of us who haven't bought that mansion off the Malibu coast, wouldn't it be cool if we could access beach-front amenities from the comfort of our own homes? Amenities like the crashing waves of the Pacific, like the California sunsets that make us stop, catch our breath and think about the meaning of the world? A VPN gives your computer access to amenities (which we call resources) without having to be physically connected to the networks where these amenities exist. How is this possible? Read on...
Every device that is connected to the internet has an IP Address. When you went into the office before the pandemic, you probably connected to your office wifi - in doing so, your computer was assigned an internal IP address.
Once your computer has an internal IP Address, your computer is able to communicate with other machines on that internal network. These other machines can be websites, services, servers, etc and are all referred to as resources - these are the "amenities" that we mentioned in the analogy above. Without a VPN, you have to be physically in the office connected to the office wifi to access these resources. With a VPN, you can trick your computer into thinking that it's in the office. In addition to having an IP Address for your home wifi, it will receive a "virtual" IP Address for the office's network.
How is a VPN related to secure browsing and healthy internet habits?
Think of it this way - if you're in public trying to have a private conversation, do you care if people know who you're talking to, even if they don't know what you're saying (HTTPS)? Or would you rather speak a secret language to one person (VPN server) and have that person privately share your conversation with whoever you need to talk to so that the "public" doesn't know who you're talking to...they just know that you're talking (VPN).
When you are connected to wifi, your computer sends and receives information over the network. Other computers on that network can see these messages (called packets). If you're browsing to a website that is using HTTPS, part of the traffic is encrypted but people can still see the site you're browsing to and other info. Over a VPN - the only thing they see is traffic being sent to a VPN server. They don't know what website you're visiting, they don't see any other info.