What Is a VPN? How It Works and Common Uses
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What is a VPN, and how does it work? How do you know if you should be using one, and is it worth paying to protect your privacy, or should you use a free one? In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know before you start using a VPN.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) have a shady reputation due to their potential for and history of clandestine uses. However, VPNs can be used for a wide range of applications, most of which are legal and useful to your average internet enthusiast. The best VPNs are incredibly safe, and they are standard tools that help you make the most of the web, all without doing anything illegal. Installing a VPN is not difficult at all and works out of the box most of the time.
Many people wouldn’t dream of using the internet without masking what they’re up to, especially with today’s data harvesting, marketing techniques, and the sales of personal information. They are becoming increasingly popular with even casual internet users.
What Is a VPN?
A VPN (virtual private network) is an easy and effective way to protect your internet traffic and keep your identity private. When you connect to a VPN server, your internet traffic goes thru an encrypted tunnel, protecting it from hackers, governments, and third-party snoops.
At their most simple operation, VPNs allow you to hide your IP address (the code that uniquely identifies your web connection). VPNs protect your privacy, identity, and location by transferring your IP to a private network that connects to the internet via an encrypted tunnel. These connections commonly get used for public Internet access, such as Wi-Fi hotspots or even a router at a local restaurant.
In addition, VPNs are handy for circumventing region-locked content, such as watching Netflix that you are used to while traveling in the UK, or watching BBC iPlayer within the US.
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How Does a VPN Work?
A VPN works by encrypting communications on the device you are using, be it smartphone, laptop, or tablet. It sends data through a secure tunnel to the VPN provider’s servers. Data is encrypted and rerouted to whatever site you are trying to reach. Paid-for VPN services, such as ExpressVPN, can mask your IP address so you can browse online securely.
What Is a Proxy?
VPNs are often discussed alongside proxies, and they have similar uses. While a VPN typically gets used to protect data in a secured “tunnel,” a proxy routes the data through another networked device, such as a remote server. This connection makes it appear as if the traffic is coming from the server, rather than the individual, giving them a different layer of anonymity. However, while a VPN will conceal who you are, where you are, and what websites you’ve visited, proxies only handle the first two.
To put it more simply, VPNs protect the data, and proxies safeguard the user.
1. Public Wi-Fi: If you use a VPN on an unprotected Wi-Fi connection (restaurants, airports, hotels, medical offices, etc.), your data is automatically encrypted. It’s reasonably safe to log into banking apps and medical sites, as well as shop online.
2. Online shopping: Shops that encrypt and protect your information are typically labeled ‘https’ in the address bar and have a lock symbol. However, some online shops leave you exposed, while other sites, such as those set up by hackers, can look legitimate even if they’re not. Browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox convert unsecured webpages to secured ones whenever possible. There are also third-party apps like HTTPS Everywhere that make insecure pages secure. Regardless, using a VPN will guarantee your data is safe if you happen to visit a risky site.
3. Protection against snooping: Using a VPN can safeguard you against hackers and service provider monitoring. If you visit a torrent site or download movies from a website, you bet your internet service provider (ISP) is watching you, and you could get a letter in the mail as a warning. You may also encounter sites built for monitoring your browsing activity, and stealing personal information to sell on the black market.
4. Net neutrality: No matter what current federal net neutrality laws are active, if any, ISPs may be able to throttle web speed and cap streaming services, which is currently possible. Sadly, they can also accept lump sums from certain third-party or web providers (Facebook and not Twitter, for example) to prioritize the paying company’s sites and services over the competition. Still, most ISPs are holding out due to ever-changing and controversial legislation and state court actions. All scenarios can get bypassed using a VPN (if unblocked) that reports your location elsewhere.
5. Removing geo-blocks: A VPN can circumvent local restrictions by hiding the user’s real IP address and substituting it with the ‘local’ address. This can be useful for all types of media content, as well as for playing video games in a region other than your own.
When Should I Use a VPN?
Home users that feel the need to protect personal data when browsing the web from their smartphone or computer should be using a VPN. Some routers allow you to set up a VPN directly on your entire network, meaning that all devices are secured, saving you from initiating a VPN on every phone, tablet, or PC.
Some individuals use VPNs because they don’t want their online activities tracked, but do it for illegal purposes. VPNs let users carry out nefarious online activities without being traced. For the most part, people primarily use it legally for identity protection and watching region-restricted content.
Types of VPN
Remote Access: As the name suggests, remote-access VPNs let individual users establish secure connections on a remote computer network. The users don’t need to plug into specific network servers. Companies with remote workers, or people who travel a lot, often use remote-access VPNs.
Site-to-site: By contrast, a site-to-site VPN lets offices in various locations establish secure connections with each other over a public network. Intranet sites (spelled correctly) that get accessed outside the office are one example of site-to-site VPN uses. Alternatively, if a company has links with external firms, such as suppliers, an extranet VPN connection will let them work together in a secure, shared network while preventing access to their separate intranets.
Free VPN versus paid
VPNs come in two flavors: paid and free. Free VPNs may sound ideal for one-time usage to view inaccessible content, but paid VPN services certainly outweigh free VPN clients.
VPNs cost money to run, so alarm bells should be ringing when you see a VPN offering free service unless they have a healthy supply of ad revenue. Not only are free services inherently slower, less secure, and typically fail to mask your IP address, but they also carry serious dangers such as harvesting your information or hijacking your internet bandwidth and IP address. Using your own computer’s address, these free VPNs can allow other users to perform illegal activities while using your location. However, some free VPNs are legitimate.
However, a paid VPN offers more security along with the promise not to sell your information or use your bandwidth for others. The third party utilizes your subscription to pay for its services instead. You’ll also find that your connection runs faster, doesn’t drop out frequently, and your IP address gets masked. Paid services don’t cost that much either, starting as low as $2 per month.
Benefits of Using a VPN
Changes your location
Your IP address, which is a special number that identifies your device and location, is changed when you use a VPN. With a new IP address, users can browse the internet as if they were in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Japan, or any other country (assuming the VPN service has servers there).
Protects your privacy
Changing your IP address with a VPN can help shield your identity from websites, apps, and services that want to track you. A good VPN also prevents internet providers, mobile carriers, and snoops from seeing your online activity, thanks to its strong encryption.
Using a VPN protects users from security breaches, such as packet sniffing, man-in-the-middle attacks, and rogue Wi-Fi networks. For example, remote workers and travelers can benefit from the increased security offered by a VPN when they are using public Wi-Fi.
If you’re in a part of the world that restricts access to Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon, Hulu, Disney Plus, or other websites, using a VPN will let you unblock these geo-restricted sites. You can also use a VPN to bypass firewalls on school or office networks.
Where Can I Get a VPN?
Searching for “best VPN” or “VPN downloads,” or any search that contains “VPN,” always brings up a slew of ad-supported VPN download links. You should not click on those when looking to download a VPN. Your best bet is to go directly to a trusted client or download source. Google Play and the iOS App Store both offer a wide selection of free and paid VPN clients for mobile devices. A good paid option for beginners is ExpressVPN. We also have a compiled list of the best VPNs to help guide you.
Why the Controversy?
If you use the word VPN or proxy around certain people, they may have an immediately negative reaction. This is because that the added layer of privacy a VPN provides can sometimes be used for nefarious purposes. The worst of these purposes being illegal activity.
A lighter side of the negatives of VPNs can be observed in the world of competitive online video games. As online gaming has grown in popularity, so has the popularity of cheating in these games. Developers try to curb this by handing out IP bans, ensuring that cheaters can no longer play the game even with a new account. Enter VPNs; the ability to change the IP address from which you connect to the internet with allows unfortunately allows cheaters to circumvent these IP bans in many games.
A VPN such as ExpressVPN can make your online experience safer and more secure. It safeguards your personal information and enhances online privacy. While they may have a less than stellar reputation from their popular uses in the past, VPNs are incredibly useful and becoming more necessary in today’s intrusive internet experience. Now that you know what is a VPN, do you have any questions or concerns? Any suggestions for your favorite VPN services? Let us know in the comments below!