What is a VPN and how can it help to ensure your online safety?
If you take an interest in online privacy and personal security, you’ve probably come across the three letters “VPN” on a regular basis. But what does this mean, and why do they keep popping up in your online browsing?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, but that doesn’t really explain a fraction of what these privacy tools do, and why we need them. So let’s unpack the term a little and demystify a class of apps which could make all the difference in your security setup.
Understanding what VPNs do: Getting to know the basics
At their most basic, Virtual Private Networks do two very important things:
- Encryption – They apply the latest encryption tools to lock away the data users send across the internet, from the point it leaves your laptop or smartphone, to its final destination.
- Anonymization – VPNs also scramble your IP address, giving web users completely new identities, and making it very tough for outsiders to learn who they are, what kind of device they are using, where they are, and ultimately – what they do online.
As the name suggests, they achieve these two goals via “private networks” which supplement the conventional internet. They don’t stop you doing anything you normally do. They just route your traffic through servers which apply the protection needed to surf privately and safely.
Hopefully, that gives a good introduction to how these tools work. But if you need a more concrete explanation, it’s a good idea to read VPN reviews which you can find on the many VPN review sites.
How do VPNs work?
On the face of things, it sounds pretty amazing. Until Virtual Private Networks came along, it took real technical skill to apply encryption and obtain an anonymous IP address. So how have the developers of these apps managed to deliver both features in off-the-shelf products?
Several vital elements go into the recipe for an elite VPN, and when you add them together, the result is almost total privacy:
- Clients – Clients are apps that users download from VPN companies. Each provider will have its own client, which acts as a portal to their server community. They tend to feature interfaces to pick the right server, as well as settings like which protocol to choose, which we’ll move onto next.
- Protocols – Clients work hand-in-hand with protocols. These tools act as a gift wrapper, concealing the data we send across the web while allowing servers in its path to “authenticate” each packet of information. This has to be secure, but also efficient enough to move data quickly (OpenVPN or IkeV2 are a couple of the most advanced around).
- Encryption – Encryption uses private keys to encode the data that protocols are “wrapped” around. Only you and the VPN provider has knowledge of this key, and keys tend to change regularly to ensure total privacy. Generally speaking, strong providers will offer 256-bit AES encryption, and that’s the standard you should look for.
- Servers – Finally, data is routed through a network of servers. Usually, Virtual Private Networks will maintain communities of servers all over the world, and the best providers ensure that these servers are fast, reliable, numerous, and secure.
What can VPNs actually do?
Now that we know some of the basics about what constitutes a Virtual Private Network, you probably want to know more about how these apps fit into everyday internet usage. You might be surprised by how valuable they can be.
- Shield yourself from cybercriminals – When you encrypt your data and anonymize your IP, you’ll be much better prepared to use public wifi networks. These networks are hard to avoid but extremely dangerous, and it’s easy for hackers to exploit their weaknesses to steal data from users.
- Beat censorship – In many countries around the world, VPNs are an essential way to beat the obstacles put in place by repressive governments. States struggle to identify anonymized users, and this lets them visit whatever sites they desire.
- Beat corporate geo-blocks – Sites like Netflix divide the content they offer by geographical region, meaning that some shows or movies are off limits in certain countries. VPNs make those blockers much less powerful, letting you watch what you like, where you like.
- Combat ISP throttling – Some ISPs “throttle” the speeds of prolific downloaders or streamers, and that’s not fair. But with a VPN installed, you can make it hard for ISPs to detect your data usage, rendering their efforts ineffective.
Ensure you choose a VPN that works, not an imposter
That just about ties things up. But before you sign up for any privacy tools, remember that choosing the right Virtual Private Network is vital. Not all companies deliver when it comes to IP leak protection and encryption. Some even use fake apps to deliver malware, while others are all about ads.