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What Is A VPN?

What Is A VPN?

Updated: 08-11-2021

VPN is the acronym for Virtual Private Network. VPNs have become increasingly popular and with good reason. They offer security, privacy, and freedom when browsing the internet. They also let you access geographically restricted websites or platforms and protect your browsing history when using public Wi-Fi.

One of the many reasons for the increasing use of VPN over the last few years is the heightened demand for geographically restricted content. A good example is video streaming platforms such as YouTube and Netflix. In some cases, you can only access some of these platforms' content if you live in a particular geographical area.

However, with VPNs, you can access this content by encrypting your IP to appear to be streaming from the approved location. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of VPN, you may be wondering what it is and whether it would benefit you. In this review, you will learn the basics of a VPN, its benefits, and its uses.

What Is a VPN?

Simply put, a VPN connects your internet-enabled device, such as your computer, phone, or tablet, to a server that connects you to another server which essentially is another computer, allowing you to use this computer's (server) internet connection. Usually, servers are located in a different country/region, which lets you access apps, media platforms that you otherwise would not from your current location.

When using a secure VPN server, your internet traffic is encrypted and goes through a tunnel that no third party can track. These include governments, cyber-criminals, hackers, or even your internet service provider (ISP).

How Does a VPN Work?

If you are unfamiliar with VPNs, the entire concept can be challenging to grasp at first. That's why I'm going to break down every aspect of VPNs and how they work. To understand how VPNs work, you first have to select a VPN service provider of your choice.

Once you have selected a VPN provider, you only need to download the application and install it on your device. After the installation, sign up as a new user and select a VPN server to establish a connection.

When the connection has been established, the VPN on your device will encrypt your data and send it to the VPN server using your internet service provider through its secure connection. Encryption works by basically changing your information to a form that cannot be understood (ciphertext) by a third party.

Encrypting also means that no one can read your information without a strong password, otherwise known as a cipher key available only to your VPN server and computer. This key is the only one that can break the code, encrypting your data and turn it from ciphertext to readable data/plain text. The effectiveness of your data encryption depends on the mechanisms of your VPN service provider.

To be specific, if you are trying to access a particular website with a computer connected to a VPN, your computer will contact the website through an encrypted VPN connection. Your request is then forwarded through the VPNs safe connection and back through the same connection.

Why Do I Need a VPN?

Even though the internet is not a basic need, it has become a significant and necessary part of our daily lives. We bank, work, and even access our medical records online. All these activities cumulatively carry a lot of information about us. If this information is not protected, it may end up in the wrong hands.

This information, which leaks as a result of using an unprotected connection, could be accessed by government personnel, hackers, or even your ISP. A VPN ensures that your personal information is protected and kept private as you browse the internet.

If you have never used a VPN, here's why you should:

A VPN will give you more online security and privacy. You can bank, shop or use social networks without worrying about the confidentiality of your data. By changing your IP address, a VPN protects your identity from applications, websites, or internet service providers from tracking you.

A good VPN will also use strong encryption to prevent prying eyes from seeing your online activities.

You may experience a security breach when using public Wi-Fi or other unsecured networks. A VPN will prevent this from happening.

A VPN masks your location, letting you access websites and media platforms restricted in your location.

A VPN can also help you override your school or office network firewall.

A VPN also protects you from being logged when torrenting. Logging refers to the act of tracking a user's activity on a computer or network. On the other hand, torrenting is downloading and uploading files through the BitTorrent network.

How Does a VPN Provide Security?

A VPN provides security by encrypting your data. As earlier explained, encryption is scrambling your data so that only the intended party can understand it. If any unintended party intercepts this data, it will be rendered unreadable. 

In a way, encryption works like a secret code. To secure your data, VPNs establish encrypted connections. After your device is connected to a VPN, it sets up an encryption key. This key decodes and encodes any information passed to and from your device.

The result of encryption is that the VPN connection remains secure even when a device uses public Wi-Fi or any other open network.

Suppose you are working from home and you connect to your company's VPN so that you can access the company's data stored in a server that is a thousand miles away. This data is supposedly traveling through a secondary internet point. If a cyber-criminal somehow gained access to this secondary internet point, your data would still be secure. The version of data intercepted would be encrypted and thus unreadable.

How Does a VPN Provide You With Anonymity and Privacy?

A VPN offers privacy by hiding your IP address so that it is not publicly exposed while you are browsing on the internet. This way, information about the websites you visit remains private. Once you are connected to a VPN server, your IP address changes to the VPN server's address.

When your device is not using a VPN, your internet activities, such as the websites you visit, can be traced back to you or your Internet Service Provider through your IP address. However, your online activities will be traced back to the VPN server and not your IP address when using a VPN.

Most VPN service providers will not monitor your online activities or disclose this information. When you can't be traced or identified through your IP address, you'll have more privacy online.

How Does a VPN Protect You on Public Wi-Fi?

Many public places such as restaurants, airports, public parks, and shopping malls have public Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi is often convenient and can be used as an additional customer incentive. While public Wi-Fi is often convenient, it is usually unsecured, meaning you are not required to enter any login credentials or passwords to access the network.

Open networks like public Wi-Fi often use unencrypted connections. These connections are an easy target for hackers trying to steal your credit card information or access other personal information.

When using public Wi-Fi, connecting to a VPN will encrypt your data, making it unreadable to anyone who may be prying on your network. Also, your internet provider will not be able to see what you're doing online.

VPNs are also a reasonable consideration even when you feel that you have a platform that allows you to browse privately. Many shared web browsers have a feature used for private browsing called Incognito mode. This feature enables you to browse without storing browsing history.

However, private browsing does not prevent your information from being shared from your device to your Internet Service provider. Third parties can also detect your internet activity even when you are using a private browsing feature. A VPN ensures that you do not run into such inconveniences.

Are VPNs Safe?

You may worry about your information's safety with a particular VPN provider after all your internet traffic runs through the VPN provider's servers. Even so, most VPN providers are trustworthy.

However, you have to be wary of free VPNs. They often abuse the data that runs through their servers by selling it to advertising companies, research corporations, or other data collecting companies. Therefore you must perform due diligence before you settle on a VPN service.

In most cases, however, a VPN is a reliable and safe way to browse the internet.

Do VPNs Slow Down Your Internet Connection?

You may hesitate to use a VPN because you are unsure how it will affect your internet speeds. The truth is that a VPN can slow down your internet connection.

Generally, a VPN works by redirecting your connection to a remote server, which can sometimes take time and consequently slow down your internet connection speeds. However, this is not always the case. Several factors determine whether or not a VPN will slow your internet connection.

The first one is the scope and capacity of your VPN provider. Most recognized VPN services have thousands of servers with the ability to accommodate millions of users.

These providers also have teams of highly trained programmers and engineers who constantly improve, optimize and maintain their servers. If you use such a VPN provider, you will notice little or no change at all to your internet speed before and after connecting to a VPN.

Another factor that will determine your internet speed is the location of the VPN server. A server located many miles away with many users may not have enough bandwidth, thus slowing down internet speeds. Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data transmitted via a network at any given time.

Your data will also have to travel over a long distance, translating to a slower internet connection. A server that is close to you and has fewer users will be faster and have enough bandwidth.

Finally, for your internet connection to be fast even when connected to a VPN, your Internet Service Provider must have the capacity to accommodate your requests. For example, to speeds of about 80 Mbps with a VPN connection, the internet plan you are on with your Internet Service Provider has to cater for that much.

Are VPNs Legal?

Because of the online anonymity a VPN provides, you may be unsure whether using a VPN is legal. After all, if you can hide your IP address, encrypt your internet connection, and access restricted content, a malicious person could do the same.

Your concerns are valid. Even with the possibility of criminal infiltration, VPN is legal in many countries. But, conducting an illegal activity while connected to a VPN is illegal.

Illegal activities include downloading or selling copyrighted information, hacking, cyberstalking, among others. Additionally, using a VPN to access a geo-restricted website or unlock applications with technological protection measures (geo-locking) could be illegal in some countries.

Some countries also consider the use of a VPN entirely illegal. While you are most likely not violating your local laws by using a VPN, it is still essential to read and understand your VPN provider's terms and conditions.

Some VPN providers state that you will be personally responsible for any illegal activity you're involved in. Other providers also state that they will report any unlawful activity or suspected fraud to relevant authorities.

How To Set Up a VPN

You can start using a VPN by following the steps below.

Step #1: Pick a Trustworthy VPN provider

The first step in setting up a VPN is to pick a reliable and trustworthy VPN provider. To do this, you first need to figure out why you need a VPN. For example, suppose you travel regularly and rely primarily on public Wi-Fi when you are away. In that case, a VPN provider with excellent security and servers all over the world should be top of your list.

On the other hand, if you need a VPN to stream movies and access websites, you will require a VPN provider with unlimited bandwidth, high speed, and a reliable connection.

Even though most VPNs support all the major platforms, including MAC, Android, Linux, and IOS, some VPNs are still not available to specific platforms. It is, therefore, beneficial to check the compatibility of your device with that of the VPN provider. Finally, pick a VPN provider with prices that suit your budget.

Step #2: Download the VPN App

After choosing a VPN provider, the next step is to download the VPN app onto your computer or phone. To do this, go to the VPN provider's website and find the necessary software. Note that downloading this software from a different source could potentially be problematic because such downloads may contain malware. After successfully downloading the app, complete the installation process and then log in.

Step #3: Find a Setup Tutorial

Sometimes setting up a VPN may not be as simple or as straightforward as a beginner would expect. If that happens, you can check your VPN providers' website for further guidance on how to set it up.

Activate the VPN App and Begin Browsing the Internet

The final step in setting up a VPN is to activate it by pressing the Connect button or a related key. Doing this will complete the VPN connection.

A VPN connection runs in the background of your computer or phone. Once it is activated, you won't notice much activity, other than notifications once a while, as it runs in the background.

After the VPN connection is activated, you can browse the internet freely and securely.

When To Use a VPN

If internet anonymity, privacy, and security are essential to you, you should use a VPN every time you browse the internet.

Since the VPN runs in the background, it will not interfere with your app usage or change your content stream. This way, you know that your data and internet activities are always protected.

There are some situations where a VPN is beneficial. Here are a few examples.

Traveling

Traveling can sometimes push you to use public Wi-Fi or other unsecured networks. Even when this is the case, you do not have to change how you use the internet or limit your internet activities to avoid exposure. You can use a VPN that will let you browse the internet as though you were at home, no matter your current location.

Streaming

You can use a VPN to freely watch movies on streaming platforms such as Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and Hulu. This way, you are protected from blocking or throttling by your local Wi-Fi network or Internet Service Provider.

 

Using Public Wi-Fi

Using public Wi-Fi in cafes, malls, airports, and parks leaves you vulnerable to hackers and cybercriminals looking to steal your personal information. Connecting to a VPN keeps your data safe with its strong encryption.

Gaming

If you are an ardent gamer, using a VPN can help you unlock games, skins, maps, and other add-on features restricted in your location. A VPN can also protect you from DDoS attacks and minimize the game's overall lag and ping.

DDoS (a Distributed-Denial-of-Service) attack is a malicious attempt to interrupt a server's traffic or network by overwhelming the server or surrounding infrastructure with massive internet traffic.

Torrenting

Normal internet file-sharing usually exposes your IP address to strangers who can track your activities and web history. Using a VPN will hide your IP address. You will then be able to torrent anonymously.

Shopping

The internet has made it easy to access goods and services online. Though, the pricing of some online goods and service providers, such as stores and hotels, may vary depending on the customer's location. Using a VPN ensures that you get accurate prices when booking a hotel online or shopping for goods from another country.

What Limitations Do VPNs Have?

VPN is an excellent solution to various privacy problems that many people experience when using the internet. By letting you browse the internet without being monitored by your Internet Service Provider or government, a VPN eliminates the major problem preventing many people from having an enjoyable and secure internet experience.

However, even with the numerous benefits of having a VPN, you will need to include other privacy measures to browse anonymously and securely.

For example, you will still be required to clear your cookies. These are small files containing information about your preferences that websites store on your computer.

Besides, there are other things that a VPN cannot achieve. For example, if you log into your Google account to search a certain keyword on the internet, Google could still identify you even when connected to a VPN. Even if you change your IP address, Google would only need to relate your account information to your search history to identify you.

Still, there are more ways a service provider can use to learn your identity, even when you are connected to a VPN. For instance, to use Google Maps, you must turn on your GPS. In that case, Google can pinpoint your exact location.

There are also advanced methods online entities can use to identify users. A good example is browser fingerprinting. This method involves the use of your devices and browser settings to differentiate you from other internet users.

VPN Alternatives

Since VPNs are not perfect, here are some alternatives to consider should the need arise.

Smart DNS

A Smart DNS (Domain Name Server) allows you to access restricted websites by disguising your location. Generally, it is considered a good alternative for accessing social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter blocked in your location. A Smart DNS works by rerouting your request through a proxy server located in a country where the blocked social media sites are supported.

Lantern

Lantern is an open-source software used when servers are not functioning. This software uses a peer-to-peer connection to connect to the internet. Lantern is famous in countries with internet restrictions and censorship, like China.

Operating Systems

Some computer and mobile operating systems let you circumvent the internet through particular features. For instance, they encrypt your email messages and files and won't leave traces on your computer unless requested.

 

 

VPNs may not be completely perfect, but they are a great way to protect your internet activity. To recap, here are some of the significant reasons to start using a VPN:

  • Guaranteed online anonymity
  • Secured data
  • Access to geo-restricted content

Now that you know what a VPN is and what it does, you may consider getting one for yourself and browse the internet safely!

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