Remote Desktop Connection vs. VPN
Whether you are trying to unblock websites at work or trying to watch content that is only available in a specific country, you have likely heard of remote desktop solutions and VPNs. What is the difference?
A VPN connects you to a remote IP address while a remote desktop connects you to an actual device elsewhere. Both services use tunneling and the internet to bypass website blockages; a VPN is more versatile and reliable, making it the standard method for unblocking content.
In this article, you will learn about each method and the advantages each brings you. You will also learn about the drawbacks of each so you can decide which service suits your needs.
Remote Desktop Connection: A Brief Overview
The name of this service is pretty self-explanatory in that when you use a remote desktop, you are remotely accessing your desktop. For this service, the providers leverage the internet because accessing your desktop with a long wire connected to another desktop would defeat the purpose.
The technology is universally lauded for mobility, and usually, one uses a remote desktop for his or her own computer. However, as new tools come into the market, people try to maximize their use.
For instance, Instagram came out as a picture sharing platform, yet influencers found a way to use it for marketing. Similarly, while remote desktop applications evolved because computers were too bulky to carry around, the service had broadened its user base to IT, support staff, assisting customers, remotely installing applications on a friend’s computer, and so on.
Furthermore, as new challenges show up, remote desktop stays a tool in the web users’ arsenal to bypass the obstacles. For instance, the challenge that some people have when setting up Outlook and other applications on their desktop came to the IT industry’s attention much after the availability of remote desktop concepts.
However, because the tool was available to them, they used it to spin a remote onboarding and installation service that millions use.
Recently, yet another use of remote desktops have come to the market: unblocking websites. For this, you have to understand how websites are blocked on a network.
If you are working from an office, the employer can block a port that connects a browser to the internet, Port 80. That allows you to use the internet within the work-related applications (which use a different port) yet not visiting a website like Amazon.com online.
With a remote desktop application, you can use a different port and connect to your home computer to use the internet to shop online. Since this is not too dissimilar to VPNs, the differences need to be explored in detail by analyzing the pros and cons of using a remote desktop.
Pros of Using a Remote Desktop
Below are the key pros of using a remote desktop service.
Reduces Disk Space Requirement
If you are on a camping trip and you are suddenly asked to email a file urgently to your boss or senior, you have to drive back for miles and reach your laptop where the file is stored. Of course, to prepare for such scenarios, professionals who anticipate this either email important files to themselves in advance so they can forward the required files when asked. Another solution is to have all the files on Gdrive or iCloud.
But that puts the files at risk for a hack. Furthermore, space is limited. Instead of purchasing additional space and spending hours uploading your content to a platform that might get hacked, you install a remote desktop app on your laptop and your mobile phone. You will not need to make endless copies of every file you think you may need while away from your office or home.
Adds Mobility to Work Environment
With the pandemic, the lockdown, and working from home becoming a norm in 2020, the ability to work from anywhere has become essential. If you want an employee to work at the weekend, will you keep your office open for just one person?
What if your company has a group transport and your work is unfinished by leaving time? There is little mobility in having your useful applications and information stored on a single computer, regardless of how small the device is.
Even if you don’t use a mac and are working with a laptop, carrying a laptop on vacation seems unwise. Not only can it get lost, but it also is an awkward reminder of work at all times. You can install remote desktop software on your laptop and easily access the machine from any other laptop if there is a need. That is a more feasible, convenient solution.
Unblocks Websites on a Specific Network
Many employers implement a ban on browsing web pages during work hours. However, their employees still need access to the internet to use different work-related applications. To do this, the employer blocks Port80 (the one used to access HTTP).
This renders chrome or safari useless when trying to access websites. But at the same time, the employees can access the business intranet and even use the internet to send or receive emails because Outlook uses port 995 or 993.
The remote desktop uses port 3389, which you can access despite the port 80 (web browsing) block. This means you can access a laptop in your home using a remote desktop application and open chrome or safari on your home computer to browse the web.
This becomes especially useful if your company uses remote desktop applications for work purposes because then the employer cannot block port 3389. Usually, it just is so that employers aren’t aware of remote desktop bypass and employees continue to use work WiFi to surf the web.
Avoids Leaving a History Offline
We don’t even clear history on our personal computers, but if we have to log in to an important platform like Paypal on a friend or family member’s computer, we become cautious of leaving behind our login credentials or history.
With remote desktop applications, you don’t have to worry about leaving behind a history of your web activity because it is all being left on the device that we are surfing remotely. Once you have finished using someone’s laptop to control yours remotely, you can uninstall the remote desktop app and give the machine back to them with no history, cookies, or logged-in websites.
This is especially handy if you find yourself working from an internet cafe or a work computer. Anywhere you don’t exactly want to leave a trail of your browsing activity, it is recommended to use a remote desktop application to browse the web.
Cons of Using a Remote Desktop
The remote desktop has almost as much weight on the drawbacks side of the equation as it does in advantages. To decide for yourself if it is worth it, look at the disadvantages of using the protocol below.
A Single Point of Failure
When you are using a remote desktop client, you may be protecting your privacy by not leaving any websites logged in or any history of your surfing habits. However, if the computer from which you logged into your device at home has a keylogger installed, the person who installed the logger has access to both your username and password. In the future, they can log in to your machine and access literally everything.
How to avoid this drawback: If you want to make sure that a keylogger doesn’t easily log your password, you should only use the remote desktop application from your trusted devices. The more you log in on strangers’ devices, the more you risk them getting to know how to login to your remote desktop application account.
Since keyloggers are meant to be stealthy, there really is no way of knowing which device has one. Therefore, you should assume every device that has been in possession of anyone but yourself has a keylogger. And in extreme circumstances, you absolutely need to use someone’s laptop to access your own; make sure to immediately change your Remote desktop account’s password after logging out.
There is a slightly more complicated process that allows you to set up two-factor authentication for remote desktop access. That way, even if someone has your password, he or she must also get access to your mobile phone to log in to your laptop.
Two-factor authentication is usually used with One-Time-Password sent to your mobile phone via SMS. You have to enter not only your own password but also this additional temporary password to log in. If a keylogger got your remote desktop account’s password, they still can’t log in to the service.
Uses More Internet Data
When you browse the internet through your laptop, you are only using internet data with one device. When you log in to a different device, you are using the internet first to use the remote desktop application and then use the internet at home to browse the web or download files. While this is not a problem if your provider gives unlimited data usage access, most connections are metered or limited, making the GBs you can use to serve the internet slightly more precious.
Vulnerable to Hacking
While remote desktop accounts can be hacked via keyloggers mentioned earlier, they can also be hacked over WiFi. In fact, the remote desktop protocol is so vulnerable to hacking that hackers actively target any remote desktop using a network just to try and get into devices they can get in. If you value your security, you may not want your devices and accounts to be something hackers actively focus on.
How to fight this drawback: Remote Desktop Programs become vulnerable to hacking as they get outdated. Make sure you are actively updating your software. In fact, it is advisable to try and get your remote desktop client to automatically update whenever there is an update available.
VPNs: A Brief Overview
As the internet world expanded beyond its humble beginnings, the race towards regulating the internet went into full swing. To this day, multi-billion-dollar corporations fight to pass new laws, get new tools, and try new tactics to control the internet. The result of this is an increased attack on privacy. For starters, any website that starts with HTTP:// instead of HTTPS://, your ISP already knows that you are visiting it.
Yes, your internet service provider knows that you visited the site and exactly which pages within it you visited. Furthermore, the website owners know that you visited their sites regardless of which protocol the websites use. But perhaps the biggest threat to users’ privacy comes from big data. Big data is a buzzword used for the reverse-modeling of users from tracking their activities via different data-points.
For instance, Facebook knows your location, what you like on Facebook, and even what you buy on websites that advertise using Facebook. A collection of this in combination with cookies on your devices and your IP address gives Facebook a picture of your personality.
These privacy threats have popularized virtual private networks that kill more than two birds with one stone. By tunneling you to a remote server from which you access the sites you wish to browse, you can throw off your IP, hackers with access to your WiFi, and webmasters regarding your activities and your identity.
Through a protocol, VPNs allow you to access one of its servers through a tunneling protocol remotely. The low-end VPNs use unsecure methods to make this connection, while premium VPNs like ExpressVPN charge a fee for subscription and use the profit from hundreds of thousands of subscribers to constantly improve the security and usability of the VPN.
While less than 16% of Americans have ever used a VPN, even the small number that does, aren’t fully aware of the advantages and the disadvantages of the service. Before you choose to use a VPN for any reason, you must understand what you stand to gain or lose.
Pros of Using a VPN
You may only be aware of one advantage of VPNs if you got introduced to VPNs through an end-goal you wanted to accomplish. Here’s everything you can do with a VPN.
Unlock Access to Websites
If web-surfing is blocked on your company’s WiFi, but you have access to email apps like Outlook, the chances are that your employer has blocked Port 80. Port 80 is the default port used to access the internet when using the HTTP protocol (often used for web surfing).
But a VPN uses up to four different ports. As a result, you can use a VPN app on your laptop and surf any website while on your work WiFi.
It is also worth mentioning that if you are using a VPN in a country that censors the web, you can use similar tunneling to access any website that is blocked by the government’s regulation of ISPs. Though the blocking mechanism is different, the end-advantage is the same.
Unlock Access to Geo-Restricted Content
When it comes to streaming content, you are not given access to anything geo-restricted to a specific country. Because licensing deals among online content providers have location clauses, who gets to provide content becomes a complicated question; for instance, Netflix can’t show certain Japanese shows only in Japan while OSN had exclusive rights to show Netflix originals in Dubai.
As a result, you can log in to Netflix anywhere and not get access to Dragon Ball Z, but if you use a VPN to connect to a Japanese server, you can sign up to Netflix Japan and watch the geo-restricted content.
Endless Possibilities With Apps
As an extension of the above drawback, the possibilities with apps are endless because apps are marketed, priced, and made available differently based on the country. Here are just a few of the possibilities with your application marketplaces and individual apps:
- Browse Tinder anywhere. Using a VPN, you can connect to a Thailand IP to find matches in Thailand, a Russian IP to match with Russians, and a remote server in the Philippines to browse tinder options there. If you were to use Tinder Gold, you would have to pay an expensive fee for the privilege.
- Download apps not available in your country. This advantage is a major one for those living outside the USA. Most apps that get launched are often made available to the US market first. However, certain Chinese apps like TikTok were under threat of getting taken off the US marketplace. However, with a Chinese proxy IP, you can still download the app even if it is removed from the US application marketplace.
- Get a better deal. This one is mostly an advantage to US residents. When it comes to online games, marketplaces like Steam price games differently for different countries based on average incomes. For instance, US gamers end up paying significantly more than Brazilian gamers. If you use a VPN and connect to the Brazilian marketplace, you can download games while paying a fraction of the US price.
Keep Prying Eyes Away
This perhaps is the most common purpose of VPN subscriptions. Once you realize that your internet service provider knows every website you visit, you feel like there is no other option but to get yourself a VPN connection. With a VPN, your web activity is encrypted, and more importantly, the webmasters don’t know who you are. If you do not use a VPN, however, the webmasters of websites you visit can easily find out your location.
Cons of Using a VPN
There are some significant risks with using a VPN, and it is important that you are aware of them before deciding to use one.
No Standard Security
There are tens of thousands of VPN services in the world. Not every VPN service is as polished as ExpressVPN or NordVPN. That is because setting up a VPN service is not as expensive as constantly improving one to avoid detection and protect activity. As a result, many VPN providers rush to the market, but customers are not aware that so many VPN services are not good enough.
How to fight this drawback: Simply avoid downloading a VPN that has less than a hundred thousand users. Also, avoid using free VPNs. When you download a VPN that you pay for, and that has a hundred thousand users or more, the VPN provider is earning millions of dollars in revenue, so you know that the business has a lot to lose by not giving the best service.
While a random VPN that shows ads to make money might be slightly functional, it will not nearly do as much to keep your location from leaking as ExpressVPN, which has over 195,000 users to retain.
VPN Can Stop Working
One of the biggest complaints VPN users have is that it stops working. This is especially the case if they are using the service to game the system of an app, marketplace, or a streaming service.
While your ISP may not be putting a lot of energy into snooping on your activity, Netflix is always cracking down on VPN users because it doesn’t want to get into legal trouble by being compliant in allowing international users to view content that it only has the rights to show locally.
No VPN is the exception to this. While cheaper or free VPNs become permanently unable to access Netflix, ExpressVPN faces a day or two of inability to access the streaming service before the VPN provider improves its service to bypass Netflix’s detection.
How to fight this drawback: One way to avoid this drawback is by simply subscribing to a VPN provider with a history of improving after losing access to a specific site or platform. This showcases that the VPN provider is resilient. You can also err on the side of caution and pay monthly, so you don’t end up paying for 12 months and getting a single month of functionality.
A Very Curious ISP Can Still Find Out What You Are Up To
Despite the most persistent efforts of VPNs, you cannot be protected from URL fingerprinting. Url fingerprinting is a way to find a user’s identity after they log-off a VPN. ISPs have a way of figuring out specific blacklisted pages you visit even if you use an ISP.
If your country has made specific content illegal and you are browsing it, the chances are that your ISP has an idea that you are doing so. But because this is a resource-intensive endeavor, generally, ISPs, even in countries with censorship, don’t target most pages.
In the United States, FTC has barred ISPs from getting too curious, which works to neutralize this disadvantage. Still, it is advisable for users of VPN everywhere in the world to avoid using VPNs to access illegal content.
What Should You Use?
While each method has its own set of advantages, one advantage they have in common is that they allow you to visit blocked websites. So any comparison between the two services has to be based on that.
You should use a VPN to unblock websites and access restricted content because it does not make your personal devices vulnerable to hacking as a remote desktop protocol does. However, each service has its specific purposes, and you can be using both or one based on its more specialized advantages aside from unblocking websites.
Who Should Use a Remote Desktop?
If anyone of the following descriptors fits you, then you should use a remote desktop connection:
- You want to access important files but don’t want to upload the files to the cloud because of security or space concerns.
- You want to access your device but are unable to carry your computer or laptop with you.
- You have a work computer at the office but work around the clock.
- You handle tech-related customer service for customers over the phone.
- You are in a customer-facing role at a Software As A Service (SaaS) company.
- You are diligent in updating your programs to the latest version and won’t have outdated, vulnerable remote desktop software.
Who Should Use a VPN?
If these resonate with you, you need to get yourself a premium VPN:
- You want to access a website, app, or an online marketplace only available in a specific country.
- You want to hide your browsing history from your Internet Service Provider.
- You don’t want your visited sites recorded on your WiFi router.
- You want to unblock websites at work or anywhere else.
Remote desktops are a great way to access key files on your work or home computer while you are away from your device but are a risky way of accessing blocked content because they are vulnerable to getting hacked.
On the other hand, VPNs unblock content and protect your identity online but have their own security holes that can leak your identity. If you want to protect your files while unblocking content, you should use a VPN but make sure to use a high-quality provider so your connection is secure and consistent.
- Delaware: Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)
- Princeton: Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), VNC, and other Remote Desktop Access Software
- Wayne State University: FAQs about Remote Desktop (RDP)
- FBI: Oregon FBI Tech Tuesday: Building a Digital Defense Against Remote Desktop Protocol Threats
- CISA: Microsoft Releases Security Update for Remote Desktop Services Vulnerability
- Gov Info: Guide to SSL VPNs
- PSU: Virtual Private Networks over the Internet