What is a VPN?

A VPN Can Give You More Privacy Online. But How Does It Work?

Have you ever tried to go onto a website, only to find that the server is blocked? This could be for any number of reasons. But there are some possible causes. The most likely is your own IP address, which is controlled by an internet service provider, or ISP. No matter where you go, you’re likely to find websites that are blocked, which usually consist of file sharing and streaming varieties.

A VPN can not only help you gain access to such sites, but perform and do a multitude of activities that would be very difficult without it. This article will help you to understand exactly how a VPN functions, along with technical and controversial aspects to the corporations that produce them. By the time you’re done, you should able to better decide if VPNs are good for your internet activities.

What Is a VPN?

In its most basic definition, a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a network of servers that will allow a computer to access a public server through one that’s private. This is done by the computer logging into such a server, which has its own IP address. And since the IP is separate from the user’s source (their ISP), they would be able to fool the destination server by showing up under a different location. As a result, access to sites that are blocked by a country or ISP would now be visible and even allow you to make accounts on their would-have-been blocked servers.

There are now loads of organizations that run VPNs and are spread throughout the world. And just like most software that’s available online, VPNs exist as both freeware and paid services. Paid VPN versions will usually feature a trial period that averages anywhere from seven to thirty days, then collecting payment after the last day expires. Once logged into a VPN application, a window will typically appear with a small number of options for the user. This is the part where you would connect to the server itself. After that’s done, you will notice multiple countries available for you to try, each with their own IP address. The number of servers could be significantly higher than the number of countries. For instance, if you looked at a VPN organizations website, they may list “1000 servers in 50 countries” in their landing page. This would mean that 1000 servers are in circulation, divided between 50 host nations. Keep in mind that not all of the IPs may share the exact same server count, so two servers may exist in Italy, while the USA could be as high as 100. Generally, VPN companies tend to create to the most server in popular destinations, which consists mostly of American and EU locations.

How Does a VPN Work?

Protocols

In order to connect you to a public server, a VPN must be configured either access the site remotely or through a router, these are known as Remote Access and Site to Site. A tunnel is created for you to gain permission through a hypothetically blocked site, but you wouldn’t be able to visit it from just this alone. Thus comes security protocols, or tools that a VPN server adopts to secure that the VPN connection remains secure. The most popular protocols are listed as follows:

  • OpenVPN – OpenVPN is an open-sourced protocol that’s based on TLS and SSL, but can be completely configured with the general public. A lot of high-end VPN organizations heavily rely on the protocol due to its stable connection and high level of security. Authentication is done with keys, so both the VPN server is destination remain secured from revealing the IP address of the user in question.
  • TLS and SSL – The Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocols are very popular with web servers, and can be commonly found on banking, shopping, social media, and news websites. TLS placed a limit on what you can access on certain sites, as does SSL. Connections made through SSL are secured using HTTPS, which depends on TLS to ensure authentication and access to user accounts that only the individual can open.
  • L2TP – The Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol is a bit more basic than what has been discussed already. Unlike TLS and SSL, the protocol depends on IPsec for encryption and authentication to the website that the user may attempt to enter. To clear things up a big, L2TP creates a tunnel via L2 traffic, usually through a router that’s connected to an ethernet cable.
  • Secure Shell – Secure Shell, or SSH, allows users to send files and visit websites securely to computers and/or servers that have not security. It uses symmetrical, hashing, and asymmetrical encryption to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. MITM attacks could potentially allow hackers to gain personal information in between data transfer, so SSH is a good option to have for VPNs users. It provides an extra layer of encryption on top of others that will be discussed further down.
  • PPTP – The Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol, PPTP, is one of the oldest network protocols to be featured on VPNs. It’s fast and is a good option for people that wish to configure the VPN server for speed. However, PPTP lacks any security features and isn’t recommended by the average VPN user due to the increased risk of MITH attacks from using it. Most VPN applications will list PPTP as an option for protocol switching, but it isn’t used as often as the others, and has become outdated.
  • IKEv2 – The Internet Key Exchange version 2 is a protocol that runs through IPSec encryption and usually built for either Microsoft or OS-X based systems. It’s one of the newer protocols to hit but is often recommended for people that are using VPNs and need to good security but decent internet speed at the same time.

Safeguarding Your Privacy

Encryption

Encryption is a very important component of a VPN, and without one, things would be much more difficult to remain secure. The most used cipher is 256-Bit AES encryption, which was developed by the NIST nearly twenty years ago. It heavily depended on by the US military, with other nations and foreign military branches using the system as well. Why it is so popular? That’s because of the way encryption keys work. The only way that data can be read from a server that connects over 256 AES is through them both having access to the key, which unlocks the cipher. When that happens, the server connection remains secure to where nothing would be able to break inside. And in the chance that someone did, they wouldn’t be able to read any of the messages or data transferred anyway. Hackers would see only ones and zeros, and nothing more. There are different bit versions of 256-AES, which are oftentimes placed on VPNs and can be changed in a settings menu.

Protection from DNS Leaks

One of the critical issues with VPNs of the past was dealing with DNS leaks. A Domain Name System, or DNS, is a network of names for server connections. Your ISP may receive leaks that are based on your DNS request, even if you’ve changed your DNS settings to the VPNs server. Today, many high-quality VPN services have special programs built within the application to never let this occur. Still, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check if you are getting DNS leaks. This could affect the speed of your VPN, force your ISP to throttle your connection, or even notify them to your browsing habits. And if they know your browsing, they will be able to see if you’re using any controversial file sharing systems to download torrents. Try to stick with VPNs that do offer some form of leak protection within the DNS, whether it be automatic or optional to turn off.

Common Features found on VPN Applications

Program Applications

VPN applications have many different Features built into the program. Some of these are placed inside the download file of the VPN, but others can be put on the app after you’ve logged in. Here are a few common features given to a large number of VPNs:

  • Anti-Virus Protection – If you don’t already own an antivirus or anti-malware application, you should get one right now. Yet if you don’t, lots of quality VPNs come with them built into the programs and will run in the background, or over whatever apps are connected to the internet. Some of the websites that people visit may not be the safest, at least in terms of malware. Torrents are sometimes hotbeds for trojan horses and other malicious code that can install on an unprotected computer. And Adblock could quickly fill your browsers and bleed through ad blocking applications. So if you plan on visiting sites for downloading songs, movies, or anything that requires going to servers that you don’t trust, look for a VPN with malware protection.
  • Kill Switch Feature – This is another extremely important features that you’ll commonly find on VPNs. That’s because it is the last way to shield your real IP before it’s known by the server you’re on. If your connection has an abrupt disconnect, your real IP address could be sent to the server when it automatically attempts to go back online. A VPN with a Kill Switch will stop this from happening by giving you the option to shut off every application on your computer that was connected. In a way, it sort of works like an enhanced firewall. So if the power went out for a few seconds during a thunderstorm, or a simple disconnect from your router occurred, the Kill Switch will continue to make you invisible to the public server you’re on.
  • Remote Access – Remote Access is one feature that many people use with routers. If you’re home if hooked up to one big network, the Remote Access can be utilized for you to secure connections from visited data that you look at when away from the computer. As an example, if you had porch lights with a WiFi signal that could be read remotely, some would be compatible with your VPN and secure the connection when placed over the internet. This would allow your cameras or anything else to avoid being viewed by hackers.
  • Browser Extensions – Browser extensions are sometimes bundled up with a normal VPN package, but not always. You could buy them separately from the downloaded and installed applications. Instead, just go to your favorite browser and see which extensions they offer on the extensions page. Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera all have VPN browser extensions. Many of them are free, but you may have to pay a monthly rate with the better-known brands. Additionally, browser extensions may not be as reliable as normal VPN apps. If you want something that will only secure your connection to the browser, you could stick with it. Just don’t get any ideas about torrenting or streaming movies with most extensions.

Why VPN Services have Become Popular

If you look back at some of the big news cycles that have occurred over the past decade, issues brought about by people such as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning have shed light on the lengths that governments are willing to go for unprecedented access to the public’s personal information. It was around the time that the PRISM program was identified that VPNs usage began to skyrocket. Revelations began to circle that the US government has complete access to whatever internet data was provided to them by ISPs, or forced over. The increase in web surveillance is not only exclusive to the US, however. The Fourteen, Nine, and Five Eyes nations form an even larger network of bureaus worldwide that often work together with SIGINT, or signals intelligence.

If your number one priority for acquiring a VPN is anonymity, then you might want to steer clear of the Fourteen Eyes. Thankfully, many providers aren’t based in these nations, although some are. Just try to do research on the company headquarters, since that’s often where the server is located. There are notable exceptions though, and some VPNs may even try to get tricky by listing the headquarters in a different country than were the servers reside. While this isn’t always a red flag, it’s still a good thing to know. Then check with the local government and see if the state/provincial laws are different or unique to what exists for the entire nation.

Another reason VPN servers have become used more is due to torrent client continuously getting shut down. This current decade hasn’t been nice for many torrent applications either. In fact, your ISP may not even allow you to visit a torrent program’s website to download it. They have become blocked at an alarming rate, and it’s always a guessing game as to which will be the next in line to get completely shut down. Combine that with the risk factor of using said torrent for file sharing, and you’ve got a really good reason to use a VPN during P2P data transfer.

And lastly, there are movies. Streaming seems to get better and better all the time, and platforms such as Netflix and Hulu have great shows and movies to watch. But not everything would be available for you to see, which may change depending on the country of your current location. Since a VPN can switch your IP address to nearly any nation you desire, watching your favorite streaming program can be done. The server (and your computer) will appear to be coming from a location other than your ISP and show movies related to the VPN server’s spoofed locale. And with that, shows from the US, EU, or any other place would now be viewable from the comfort of your PC or laptop. And you don’t even need an expensive airplane ticket.

Devices and Software You can use A VPN On

Some of the uses have already been discussed, but there are a few others. Let’s find out what they are:

Windows PC/Phone

Windows has the largest platform for computer programs, so it’s natural that there are lots of VPN servers to pick. If a VPN organization has a product available online, then a Windows app is likely the first download that comes up. Windows has a minimal configuration that needs to be done to get a VPN working also. Some Windows versions might need to be set up differently, depending on how you want to configure your settings in the application. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to leave everything in default settings, changing up as you get to know your system. Windows smartphones also have VPNs which are numerous. If you have such a mobile, remember to go with the popular choices first because there tends to be a large amount of third-party software that’s Windows-based. Some of which may not be safe for your device.

Mac/iPhone

Mac computers and laptops have also become compatible with a lot of VPN apps, and may even be downloadable from the App Store. If you’re getting one for the iPhone, you must use the store to hook up with a VPN server. But like Windows, care should be taken to avoid some of the free versions of software, at least without doing your research into the company. Macbooks and iMacs run on OS-X and have network settings that may require at least an intermediate understanding for hooking up your VPN. But before you do that, check the web address of the VPN and make sure there are setup instructions. Getting everything working right is what you want, especially if you plan on using the aforementioned Kill Switch feature on the Mac. Read my top picks for VPNs for OSX

Android

Android VPN software isn’t that much different to other apps that exist of competing devices. Most of the VPNs that do operate under the mobile OS can be downloaded from the Google Store. Some of these are very popular brands that have paid servers, while others might be very suspect. It’s also really easy for you to set up the VPN, and there will probably be little need for you to change up mobile’s settings to get it running quickly.

Linux

Linux has been known to be used by people who like to control all aspects of the way their operating system behaves. There are many Linux-based distributions to try but Ubuntu, Elementary OS, and Arch Linux have the biggest user bases. If a VPN program says that it can be used over Linux, that usually implies the majority of distros on the web. Furthermore, Google’s Chrome OS is also built from Linux, whereby the same fact applies to it as far as compatibility goes.

Are VPNs Safe/Legal?

There are a few risks associated with using VPNs, but can be minimized if you’re familiar with the way that they work and conduct business (the companies), among other things. As for the legality, they’re generally legal to download and use in most nations but can open the doorway to doing unsafe activities. Yet this can apply to literally anything you do online.

  • Getting Blacklisted from Websites – This will likely happen if you’re using a VPN to access sites that have lots of security featured embedded within their server. Banks accounts are often shut down because of this, and many will not even allow VPNs to access such websites. Some can, but it isn’t recommended that you do so. Using either your real IP address or a dedicated VPS server would be a good choice instead.
  • Hacking – If an adversary really, really wants to get into your computer or find out who you are, it’s likely that they will with the right amount of software and resources. However, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about too much. Use the same precautions that you would do without a VPN. Scan incoming files with an anti-virus, Don’t click on ads whenever you can check your DNS settings on the VPN to ensure that no leaks are occurring.
  • Memory Usage – Constantly having your laptop or computer’s memory in a high state will shorten the light of the hardware. VPNs typically won’t use up too much of your memory, but can if you’re connecting lots of different programs to the servers simultaneously. This could happen with or without a VPN, but may slightly increase the RAM from the added layer of security. Don’t overdo it, close out any unused programs that you have open, and keep your machines fan in a cool state whenever you can.
  • Changing VPN Configurations – If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing in its settings, your VPN’s security could be jeopardized. When you download a VPN, everything should be set up in a way that makes it best for beginner to use without running into issues. Stick to this if you consider yourself unfamiliar with their controls. Read up a bit on the company that you’re interested in, or go on YouTube to find videos of people setting up their application. Then when you’re ready, fine-tune the setting to the way you want the VPN to run.

Free versus Paid VPN Applications

This is another controversial topic. Free VPNs have been around for a very long time, and have become commonly found on smartphone and tablet devices. But they’re also downloadable for computers and have servers that are used by a large number of people throughout the world. But the downside to this is speed. Public and free VPNs are usually very slow, having speeds that are significantly lower than what a person’s IP is capable of doing. If you did a speed test on the average free VPN, it might not make it to even 10 megabytes per second, especially around peak hours.

Free VPNs are also frequent targets for hackers to steal personal information from the users. The companies who run such servers must pay for them some way, and logging user information is very common. How much they take depends on the VPN in question, and subject to change. And most importantly, some VPNs themselves might be considered malware, and networks have has legal troubles in the past for secretly profiting off the backs of their unaware user base. Unethical and/or illegal practices like this are more likely to take place over freeware VPNs.

Popular VPN’s

There are many great choices as far as VPNs go. Here is a listing of several trusted brands.

  • ExpressVPN – Decent amount of server, fast speeds, trusted network
  • PureVPN – From Hong Kong. Has thousands of servers, good login times
  • VyprVPN – Swiss-based and packed with good applications and protocols
  • Private Internet Access – Privacy focused and dedicated to never logging user info
  • NordVPN – Based in Panama and great has just about everything that one looks for in a VPN

Here are some of the major Pros and Cons of using a VPN service:

Pros:

  • Keeps Users Anonymous – No longer will your information be shared with servers and used to make money from you, or log your information. You can browse the web completely hidden from the world, and since your IP address isn’t used, on one will know your exact location. Anonymity will also help you separate your “anonymous” life away from any public profiles. Blending the two together is never a good idea, so your VPN servers can hide you, while your ordinary IP would work with things that you must access publicly, such as some bank accounts and or other financial data.
  • Allows Users to Make Accounts in Foreign Locations – Many VPN servers have a large host of servers with IP addresses that span throughout many nations. If you wanted to get on a Japanese website that has Anime that was exclusive to IP addresses within Japan, a VPN would open you up to any show that you wish. Streaming sites are no longer hidden behind IP location either, and the server should remember your address and allow you back on whenever you like.
  • Not a Steep Learning Curve to Use – While there are some advanced features put on VPNs, the programs themselves aren’t hard for a beginner to use immediately. Just download, install, and that’s it. You may even end up with a company that has instructions embedded within the program. If they are none featured on the app, go to the web server to see if there’s any help. More than likely you will be able to find something that can teach you how to run your VPN to its fullest use.
  • Comes with Encryption – The standard is AES-256, but others exist within the VPN’s protocols. The data that transfers to the public servers that you visit cannot be read by hackers without an encryption key. It’s highly unlikely that you would ever be hacked or have your messages decrypted by force, which allows your browsing to stay better guarded than being on the normal internet. Free VPNs may not have this attribute though, so go with the paid versions (on trial or right away) if encryption is pertinent.
  • Allows full User Access to Torrent Clients – Torrents can be easily accessed over a VPN, and are encouraged. You can download torrent applications and click on magnet links, never worrying about your authentic IP address leaking while doing so. That’s because the VPN you pick might have a built-in firewall. But for torrenting, your files should download quickly with the right brand.
  • No Speed Throttling – Speed Throttling will never occur when you use a good VPN. That’s because the ISP won’t be able to tell where the downloads are coming from. Watch all the streaming content you like, and nothing will slow down intentionally. If you don’t want a slow down at all, be sure to contact your provider for decent internet speed, one that goes above 20 or 30 megabytes per second is best.
  • They Won’t Burn a Hole in Your Pocket – Many VPNs are paid but cheap. The cheapest options of all may only cost you a few cent or dollars at best. Services typically last for about a month, and there are some VPN companies that have longer payment periods. If you don’t want a free VPN but are just looking for a basic server for streaming movies and what not, then go for one that’s low priced but allows movies to be played (or downloaded) at a fast rate. Anything that’s more than 2K in definition will probably require a high-end VPN server. But overall, VPNs maintain good costs.
  • Lots of Different Payment Options – You don’t have to pay for a VPN with your credit card. Many people have found out that VPN companies do store payment information, which could be used to track you don’t if your provider is located in a country with tough surveillance laws. Bitcoin payment use has been rising at an exceptional level over the past few years, and there could be more crypto-currencies (with even better privacy) available. Zcash is one that isn’t in the confines of Blockchain.

Cons:

  • If no Kill Switch is Given, your IP May Leak – Not every VPN has a Kill Switch. If yours doesn’t, you could risk leaking your real IP address every time you use the service. If you absolutely cannot have it leaked, then you’ll be better off not using the VPN to visit the websites that you intend to visit. Based on where you are, things like this could end up creating a lot of trouble, so know what you’re doing before you start. Also, your VPN’s DNS server may also leak and expose the website that you visited. This is something that can happen regardless of the Kill Switch but isn’t the case with the majority of paid services.
  • Your Identity can still be Discovered – Yes, that’s right. No better tool is there for keeping your identity a secret than yourself. It doesn’t matter the level of anonymity you have on a VPN; all of that can be blown within seconds, depending on how you use the server. Don’t get on websites that you want to be anonymous on, and then use it to sing in on a different account with your real name and profile. This will do nothing to aid in your anonymity, but everything for people who wish to determine who you are (or where you live). Furthermore, don’t try getting on the same website using your normal server that you just went on with the VPN. This can also form a pattern and will expose you to people who can find out that you’re using a VPN for a service based in a different country, then blacklist you immediately.
  • Connection Speeds might be Reduced – VPNs just aren’t going to go as fast as your normal ISP would run. Yes, this won’t affect everyone, but the server your connecting to will be shared by other people, which increases the chances of it slowing down at some point. And since torrenting and files sharing is one of the most used activities done on a VPN server, your internet speed may drop from its normal rate to almost half. Whenever a VPN company shows their speed tests, always compare it to your owns, the speed that it goes when you’re not using a VPN service. If you’re not planning on gaming or watching super high definition movies on the server, then this problem will be nonexistent. That is, if you stick with a reputable VPN from the start.
  • Potential for Becoming the Victim of Malicious Activity – Anyone can get a virus, but the places you go to online can make the chances much higher. Torrents are one of such places that are known to contain malware. You would do well to use a VPN that has some sort of malware protection, particularly if you don’t have an antivirus or anti-spyware on your operating system. If you often find yourself using the internet in public locations, then the chances increase. You don’t want to have hacker find out your user data, so trying out a VPN will keep you safeguarded against other people who might be on the network, with ill intentions. Fortunately, most quality VPN programs contain their own applications that may stop any such threats from coming into your computer. There’s a lot of dangerous code out there, so shield yourself from worms and trojan horses if you’re not doing that right now.
  • May Not be Used to its Full Potential For Beginners – VPNs, while easy to set up, can become a little hard to master. It’s mainly due to the protocols and encryption features that might be embedded on the VPN you acquire. If you don’t know what these are, the section near the top above detailed them each (under features). As written previously, try to get a VPN with a reduced learning curve, or one that has all the bells and whistles ready for you as soon as the installation is done. Even VPNs on iPhones may require changing the settings.
  • Won’t Hide User Agent – Your user agent is information shared to a server about your browser. This could become a way for hackers to determine what weaknesses you have on your computer or browser. There are some ways to hide this too, such as user agent spoofing, but aren’t usually recommended. Your user agent, believe it or not, could make you less exposed, because changing it in any way makes your computer look more unique to the sites you visit. If a web’s servers see your user agent and notice something about it that looks a little fishy, then you could risk your entire cover.
  • VPN Logging – This is something that many companies take part in, to some degree. The information they share might be minimal, but some companies will log your connection times and sign in attempts. It usually happens with freeware more often than not, but could be a policy found on a paid VPN server. Be sure to read the fine print if you can. Most good servers will be upfront and honest about their logging. And don’t forget: ALL VPNs log in some fashion. If you pay for one with your credit or debit care, they must log the info into the server, at least for a short period. Furthermore, try to stay away from companies that log and are based in the Fourteen Eyes nations that were discussed previously. Intrusive laws and extensive logging is never a good combination because companies cannot lie to authorities if they are somehow forced to hand over info for whatever reason. Any server that you feel isn’t telling you all about their company logging policy should be avoided. Those that do it may take your data and sell it off to third parties, who may use the collection for purposes that may be considered nefarious.

Summary

Have you decided if a VPN is a good software choice for your computer? There are many great apps given to nearly every popular operating system you could think up. That’s Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and Linux. And many paid versions allow users to control multiple devices with one account. People who families will be able to connect all internet sources to the server, without the need to purchase an additional. And since most are encrypted, exchanging other WiFi-enabled devices that are compatible with VPN servers s simple. You could have your entire home set up in hardly any time at all. Or maybe you’re just worried about one computer, and your own personal anonymity.

If that’s the case, just acquire for yourself, and use on your personal computer only. Torrenting and Streaming capabilities are open, once blocked website will now have access, and your geolocation won’t be known by the servers linked to your “hidden” server. Try out a VPN if you want to take your online privacy back into your court. It’s a lot harder to do that with today’s technology, but not impossible.