The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Understanding What a VPN is and How VPNs Work
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It is used to cloak your online activity from prying eyes. Let’s find out how a VPN works, how it encrypts your online communications and how it renders you virtually invisible online.
The "Cloak of Invisibility" for Online Communications
A virtual private network (VPN) allows users to privately communicate on otherwise public networks. The flow of data across public networks and shared networks operates as if the user is connected to the private network.
You can also use split tunneling so that only some of your traffic is sent through the VPN.
At the heart of VPN technology is encryption technology that creates a secure connection between the user and their VPN provider. VPNs are used for multiple purposes, notably connecting to proxy servers, bypassing geolocation-based restrictions, and avoiding government-imposed censorship.
It is a misconception that VPNs provide complete anonymity when browsing the web. However, they increase your online privacy and security by cloaking your activity from prying eyes. VPN security protocols encompass multiple components and come in different forms with different trade-offs.
Full authentication is needed for VPN connections to be created. There are many different types of authentication procedures including digital certificates, two-factor authentication and other forms of cryptography.
Benefits of Using a VPN
- VPNs are used to access restricted content with relative ease.
- VPNs provide a ‘cloak of anonymity’ to users. Your IP address is hidden from view to everyone except the VPN service provider.
- VPNs were suggested by tech aficionados as a way to limit information available to ISPs.
- VPNs are highly effective at securing free Wi-Fi connections at libraries, coffee shops, airports and hotels.
- A VPN hides your true IP address and makes it difficult (not impossible) for the authorities to track you down. If you are sharing music or movie files, accessing adult content, or related activity it is highly recommended that you use a VPN.
What is the best VPN?
How to you get a VPN is as easy as filling in a form and downloading an app, what's tricky is finding the right one. A good place to start is with our extensive expert and user reviews.
How to Pick a VPN Provider
The following criteria must be considered thoroughly:
- The data the VPN provider collects
- The reputation of the VPN provider
- The number of servers the VPN provider offers and their location
- The location of the VPN provider and the laws governing its operation
- The encryption protocols used by the VPN provider to safeguard your information
If you want to know more about what's going on with your VPN service, this instructive guide will get you off to a good start with understanding VPNs.
So, what information does a VPN protect?
Every web server accesses information in packets. These packets include important metadata including your IP address. Data can be disguised by using encryption technology, tunneling protocols and different servers.
Metadata is perhaps best understood by way of an example: Let's suppose you are in a library and you're looking at a library catalogue card. The data on the card might include the book's title, the author, a synopsis of the story, the subject category, and a code that allows people in the library to find that book’s location.
In much the same way, it's easy to extrapolate and understand how our online browsing activity creates so much metadata information. For example, emails include all sorts of metadata such as the sender's IP address, the subject line of the email, the recipient’s name, the recipient’s email address, the time the email was sent, and so forth.
Cell phones also relay metadata in the form of the caller's telephone number, the recipient's telephone number, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and the GPS location of the parties to that call.
Every time you go online and connect to a website, you leave a digital footprint. When you are searching the internet, you invariably add lots of metadata content to your digital footprint. This includes the name of the site you are searching for, the page title, the date the article was published, keywords and so forth. Without metadata, the internet as we know it would cease to exist.
All the information we search for on the internet is broken down into small packets, and if these packets are intercepted, important information can be learned. Over time this information gets logged and a virtual profile can be created to determine which sites you visit. In the wrong hands, access to this information could be disquieting to say the least. A VPN makes all of this metadata invisible to the prying eyes of marketers, government agencies and hackers.
Now Let's Get to the Exciting Part – How the VPN Actually Works!
What a VPN does is protect your privacy by masking your internet activity. As soon you turn on your VPN, all of your online traffic is encrypted. The traffic flows from your IP address through your VPN service to your target website. Instead of connecting from A to B directly, you are connecting A to C to B.
In this rudimentary example, anyone on B’s end and can only see information about C and nothing about A. Savvy? Put differently, anyone on B’s end will only see the IP address of the VPN server at C and not your IP address at A.
It is easy to understand how redirecting traffic this way can be beneficial to you. Let's say you are trying to access a football match in England and you're currently based in the US. Certain UK websites limit their live streaming of sports matches to people currently in the UK. A VPN would get around this block if they have a server you can connect to in the UK.
In a similar way, you may wish to access Netflix in the US (with its broad selection of films and TV shows) while you're abroad. Again, a VPN would do the trick.
There's more to this story than meets the eye and it comes in the form of protocols and encryption. VPNs use different transmission protocols and encryption technology to improve the safety and speed of your online traffic. A commonly used transmission protocol is OpenVPN protocol which relies on SSL/TLS. Other VPN protocols include IKEv2, L2TP/IPSec, and PPTP. In terms of encryption, more encryption is always better. The standard 256-bit encryption key is preferred.
Why is a VPN necessary for online activities?
Online security is important in an era where data miners, hackers and government agencies are seeking to get their hands on more of our personal information. Anyone with enough smarts can easily access important data travelling across unsecured Wi-Fi connections. Unfortunately, if this information falls into the wrong hands it can have a devastating effect.
Recall that a VPN acts as a secure tunnel which obfuscates traffic flow from prying eyes. In other words, some of the communications between your computer and the internet are shielded from view.
It's important to stress that VPNs encrypt some of the data flow, not all of it.
Our computers have IP addresses which are valuable sources of information to hackers. A VPN is a powerful tool which can be used to cloak your network’s IP address. When you're using a VPN, your IP address is shielded from view and nobody can monitor, manipulate, or modify your online traffic.
Your Internet service provider (ISP) can easily track, monitor and record all of your online activity and provide details thereof to the authorities, or sell it to 3rd parties. With a VPN in operation, your traffic is hidden from view and so is your physical location.
A VPN effectively redirects your traffic flow from your IP address to your target website through a VPN server at a different location. This intentional redirection of online communications makes virtually everything you do invisible to everyone but the VPN service provider.
To this end, it's important to use a reputable VPN provider to ensure that your online communication a.k.a. your logs are not sold to 3rd parties or shared with government agencies. VPNs do not remove cookies from your browser like with private mode browsing, and they are not ad blockers either.
Guarding Against DDoS Attacks
One of the most feared attacks that can take place, is a DDoS attack or a distributed denial of service attack, where bad actors can render a service unusable resulting in a crash of the service. This crude form of censorship can occur if a government agency, or a group of hackers decide to shut down a website by flooding it with traffic. With the bandwidth in disarray, it will no longer function.
Fortunately, most people will never encounter a DDoS attack, but online gamers may be targeted by jealous competitors. Gamers can guard against this by using a VPN.
If other players know your IP address, they can flood your bandwidth and render your IP address unusable. A VPN simply disguises your IP address and makes it impossible for them to attack you. Some VPNs will slow down your gameplay, while others have minimal side effects. Premium services typically provide better connectivity, more servers, and minimal disruptions.
Are VPNs the answer to online safety and security concerns?
VPNs are a useful tool to add to your arsenal as you move towards increased privacy and anonymity online. There are many other measures you can adopt to safeguard your traffic flow. Powerful ad blocking software, antivirus systems, private browsing tabs, TOR, an onion router and similar tools can help to reduce your digital footprint.
Perhaps the biggest concern with using a VPN is the VPN provider itself. The FTC has issued a buyer beware alert for people using VPNs owing to the tendency of some of these companies to sell their users’ private information. Sure, it's possible to install your own VPN service, but you need the technical expertise to do so. "Trust, But Verify" is an important condition when it comes to using VPNs.
In all cases, it is important to read up as extensively as possible about the VPN provider, its parent company and any complaints levelled against it. The preferred option for most people who use VPNs is a commercial VPN service like HideMyAss, ExpressVPN, NordVPN, CyberGhost, or PureVPN.