This article was contributed by NCA-CEOP

NCA-CEOP is a command of the National Crime Agency. As well as being a reporting mechanism, NCA-CEOP works with child protection partners across the UK and overseas to identify the main threats to children, and coordinates activity against these threats to bring offenders to account.

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VPNs: What are Virtual Private Networks?

NCA-CEOP education coordinator, Leah Buck, explains the uses and risks of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and what to do if you think your child is using one

What are VPNs?

Virtual Private Networks, more commonly known as VPNs, are secure connections over the internet. Once connected to a VPN, the web traffic of a user is forwarded securely to a virtual network, so they can browse the web through the VPN and not their own local network.

When using a VPN your information is securely encrypted, and your computer will interact with the web as if you're connected elsewhere. In other words, you browse the web incognito.

Five reasons why both adults and children may choose to use them:

For added security

People who are concerned about their internet privacy and security may choose to use a VPN as it’s a simple and often free way to protect their internet connection and sensitive online information.

Some people see VPNs as a means of providing an additional layer of security to their online activities as it masks their location.

When working remotely

A VPN can be used to access a work IT system or local network if working away from the office. There is the added benefit that a secure network can help protect against people accessing your information, especially when out and about using a public wifi connection.

To break restriction settings

VPNs can bypass internet filters at home or at school. A VPN would allow access to a site such as YouTube that may have been blocked on a home or school internet system over concerns about young people accessing inappropriate content.

To use subscriptions outside of the UK

A UK-based VPN allows you to browse the web as if you're still in the UK and access content that otherwise wouldn’t be available to non-UK residents.  If you are abroad, for example, you can use the services you have subscribed to and would normally be able to access from the UK.

On the flip side, people also use them to access online content that wouldn’t normally be available in their home country. A common example is using a VPN to access a subscription-based service outside of the UK, such as US Netflix. This allows you to watch something before it’s available on the UK version. Services such as Netflix have attempted to block the use of VPNs as accessing TV shows from other regions is a violation of their terms.

For illegal activities

In some cases, VPNs are used for illegal activities such as buying drugs and other illegal goods.

Are VPNs legal and what are the risks?

Using a VPN in the UK is legal, however illegal activity that takes place while using VPNs is not.

There are risks associated with the use of VPNs, particularly for children:

  • As it is hard to assess the credibility and security of a free VPN, which a child is more likely to use, they may expose themselves to malware and fraud from those running the VPN.
  • Security filters such as parental controls or school internet blocks that are in place to keep children safer can be bypassed. This can lead to children having access to age-inappropriate, pornographic websites and content that they might find distressing or harmful.
  • Children may be exposed to contact from people online who they do not know, which may have otherwise been restricted or blocked.

What can you do if you think your child is using a VPN?

Whether you think your child is using a VPN or not, it’s always important to have ongoing age-appropriate conversations about their internet use and who they interact with online. Reiterate that they can talk to you if they come across anything that worries them whilst they are online.

  • If you think, or know, that your child is using a VPN it’s a good idea to talk to them about why they are doing so. If they are using it to bypass security controls that you have put in place, explain why you decided to do this and that they are there to ultimately protect them from harm. 
  • If they are using a VPN to undertake illegal activity, such as sharing illegally downloaded music or films, highlight that they are breaking the law, and this could have serious consequences.

Further reading

For more information on supporting your child on the internet and helping them to stay safer, visit the NCA-CEOP Thinkuknow website for parents and carers.

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

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