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What is a VPN?
December 9, 2018
Scores of internet users rely on browsing security tools like “Private Browsing” and “Incognito.” Most folks believe that private browsing tools prevent digital eyes from prying your browsing history, or keep data trackers from collecting information about your web habits.
Unfortunately, that’s not what private browsing tools are built for. Even while you’re using one, anyone on the internet can see what online activity you’ve been up to. Your privacy is still exposed to billions of possible voyeurs. But before you stress too much, take heart.
Your first reason not to panic: most of these voyeurs seek your data for business, not malicious, purposes. Even so, you have every right to seek privacy from commercial interests.
Second reason not to panic: you could always use a VPN for real internet privacy.
VPN stands for “virtual private network.” Let’s explore what a VPN is, and how exactly it can provide you with added privacy and security.
What does a VPN do?
A virtual private network allows you to access the internet through a private internet server. A virtual private network does what most internet users think private browsing does: It conceals your identity while you’re surfing the web. With a strong VPN, no one can see that your computer is accessing a specific website.
It’s not 100% secure. Slip-ups do occur, and hackers are always trying to find ways to break into VPN servers. But it’s undoubtedly better than your standard mode of web browsing.
“All right, all right!” you say. “Now tell me how I can do this VPN thing!” Hold your horses, we’re getting to that. Using a VPN is not quite as simple as clicking “private browsing,” not at first, anyway. If you’re going to invest in one, you should know a little bit more about how it works.
How does a VPN work?
To understand how a VPN works, you need to review how the internet functions. Don’t stress, we’re only going to cover the basics. Understanding how the internet functions will help you understand the dangers of unguarded web browsing, and then you’ll better understand how a VPN subverts those dangers.
How does standard web browsing work?
A computer network is where multiple computing devices can exchange information. They can exchange information by sending electrical signals through wires, or by wirelessly exchanging electromagnetic waves. That’s all the internet is - a massive, interconnected web of computer networks where data is exchanged.
Data exchange takes place when you browse the web. Your computer sends a signal to a website server to request access to the website. The server complies with that request by sending webpage data back to your computer.
Here’s a demonstration:
Let’s say that you want to browse a website. You enter the website in your address bar and hit “send.” Your computer sends off an electrical signal that requests data from that website.
- First, the signal is sent to the server of your local internet service provider (ISP)
- Then, the signal is sent to a domain name server (DNS)
- A DNS will search for the server of the website that you typed in your address bar
- The DNS sends the signal to the website server
- The website server processes the request
- It will then send its webpage data back to your computer so that the website will pop up on your web browser
But how does the website find your computer among billions of other computers?
That’s where an IP address comes in. Every device that can access the internet has a unique IP address that serves as a special identifier in the vast network of devices. When your computer transmitted its request to the website, it included your IP address as a sort of return address.
As you can see, the IP address is a necessary part of internet browsing. But it also means that anyone online can learn which websites your computer is communicating with.
Can my info be hijacked?
Remember, there’s no direct connection between your computer and the website server. The signals must traverse a massive range of other servers to reach the other side, and it’s in that space where your information is public and vulnerable.
How does a virtual private network function?
When you use a virtual private network, all of your computer’s requests are carried out by a private server. Typically, the server is owned and operated by a private company.
Let’s say you’re browsing a website, but you’re using a VPN. When you type the website into your address bar and hit “send,” your computer sends out a request.
- VPN software immediately encrypts the data that your computer has sent
- The data is modified and rearranged in such a way that it’s made unreadable (There’s a key (secret code) on how to decipher the encryption, but only your VPN knows it)
- The encrypted data is sent to the ISP
- The ISP sends it to your VPN’s server
- The VPN server takes over your request
- It receives the website data, encrypts it, and sends it back to your computer
Servers will see that the request to access the website is being made by your VPN’s server, not by your computer.
Is using a VPN legal?
A VPN is not illegal in most western countries, including in the United States and Canada.
Private servers often get a bad reputation because of their association with torrenting and because they’re sometimes used for illicit activities - like hacking and piracy. But virtual private networks are legal in and of themselves.
What are the benefits of using a VPN?
Web browsing through a virtual private network might be slower. After all, your computer’s requests always pass through an extra server and have to be encrypted. But a VPN still has plenty of great benefits and are used by a wide range of people and organizations.
Journalists use the servers to keep the facets of their investigation private from opposing parties. Government agents and businessmen use VPN servers for similar purposes. And lots of private citizens enjoy using the servers because they simply care about their privacy and they don’t want their internet habits to be seen, sold, or collected. Internet privacy is not reserved for hackers and pirates.
Using a VPN prevents anyone from tracking your requests back to your computer’s IP address. Your requests can only be tracked back to the VPN server.
Granted, your requests are momentarily vulnerable when they leave your computer and pass through the ISP server on their way to the VPN server. Good virtual private network companies make sure that your request is encrypted as soon as it leaves your computer. Encryption jumbles all the data - including the name of the website you’re seeking - so online entities can’t decipher what your computer is attempting to communicate with.
Since your IP address is being concealed, there’s a lesser chance you’ll be victim of identity theft when you use a virtual private network.
A virtual private network may allow you to bypass local censorship laws and access banned content. VPN servers are located all around the world, and they can access whichever country’s web content that the server is located in. Many users enjoy using a VPN to access a foreign country’s Netflix shows.
A VPN is considered a must-have for torrenting. Because of the nature of torrenting - downloading files from a host of peers rather than from a single server - torrent users are at greater risk of hacking or data tracking due to the variety of different hosts needed to download a single file. VPN servers will conceal your IP address so that you won’t get hacked or tracked.
Torrenting isn’t an illegal downloading method, but many users get in trouble for torrenting copyrighted material that has been illegally obtained. That’s why torrenting has a negative connotation, and why VPN servers have a bad reputation by association.
Copyright trolls are a major concern for torrent users. Copyright trolls use IP addresses to find users who have downloaded illegal material, and they file copyright infringement claims on that user. If you accidentally download a copyrighted file, the anonymity provided by a VPN could prevent you from being exploited by copyright trolls.
Not all VPN servers allow torrenting. If you’re a torrent user, make sure that you use a torrent-compatible VPN.
How do I get a VPN?
Virtual private networks are operated by a variety of different companies, all based in different parts of the world. Some of these companies offer their services for free, while others charge a small monthly fee. We’ll talk about that in the next section.
Typically, you sign up for the VPN of your choice, and then you’ll be directed to download software very similar to a web browser like Chrome. The software encrypts your data and connects with the VPN server.
How do I choose the best VPN company?
Not all VPN servers are equal. They’re all built with varying degrees of security. There are even fake VPN companies that can give you malware or sell your information to third parties. There are a few different categories by which you can evaluate a company’s effectiveness and legitimacy.
Free vs. paid
Free servers can’t offer security that’s as strong as paid servers. The strongest virtual private networks have well-maintained servers and network infrastructure. You need money to perform these tasks regularly and efficiently, and so the best VPN companies are the usually the ones that have an income stream from users rather than advertisers.
Thankfully, paid VPN companies are not very expensive. Typically, you’ll pay a monthly fee of $3 to $5. You can have military-grade security for the price of a cup of coffee.
The VPN protocol is the method by which your computer sends information to the VPN server. There are 5 major protocols:
You should try to avoid PPTP because it’s one of the older protocols and has a lot of security holes. L2TP/IPSec and SSTP are solid protocols that are widely used.
The best protocol is OpenVPN. This is an open source protocol that allows users to collaborate on testing its weaknesses. It’s a bit slower than the other protocols, but it can tackle the largest variety of internet activities and it offers the strongest encryption.
Some VPN companies keep logs of a user’s activity. The logs are stored privately by the company and are not available to the public. Some VPN companies may be required by law to keep logs, while malicious companies use them to sell your data to select third parties.
You should try to avoid using a VPN provider that keeps logs. Although logs generally aren’t ever made public, governments can get court authority to make the company release them. Litigation could happen for any number of reasons. But the point is, it can happen. That’s why it’s better to choose a provider that keeps no logs at all.
Some servers have a “kill switch.” Whenever your connection to the VPN server drops, the VPN will immediately cut off your internet connection to prevent any breach in privacy. Try to use a virtual private network that utilizes a kill switch.
What’s the difference between a VPN, Tor, and Private Browsing?
A virtual private network is different than Tor and private browsing tools on computers.
Tor stands for “the onion router.” Onion routing is an alternative method by which to anonymize information being sent across the web. When you’re using Tor, your computer signals are encrypted with several different encryption layers, hence the onion terminology. The signal travels across a special network of volunteer Tor servers, each one decrypting one encryption layer.
A virtual private network and Tor are both solid ways to maintain your internet privacy. While a VPN uses a single server for encryption, Tor encrypts your data repeatedly as it travels from server to server. A VPN server is more vulnerable to an attack because it’s consolidated in one place. Tor is less vulnerable because its network is random and expansive but that also makes Tor much slower than a VPN.
Private browsing (called “Incognito” on Chrome) does not conceal your IP address when you’re browsing the web. It only prevents your web browser from saving cookies and autofill information.
It’s a helpful tool. Private browsing is highly recommended if you’re using a public computer or a work computer, or if you’re sharing your computer with another user. It just doesn’t protect your online privacy in quite the way that people think.
A VPN, however, does. If you care about your internet privacy, if you don’t want your web habits to be watched, tracked or sold, then you should consider accessing the web through a capable VPN. You have a right to privacy, at least in the United States. Don’t hesitate to exercise that right.
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About the Author: Zach Cabading is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Zach is a content creation specialist based in Southern California, and creates a variety of content for the tech industry.