What Is A VPN And How Does It Work?
Written by: Valerie Dawson
Let's be honest: we all Google sometimes something that we'd rather not have directly linked to our name. Also, most of us will know the frustration of an internet page that is not available for our region.
These are just two of many reasons to use a VPN - but what is a VPN really, and how does it work? You'll find out!
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. This allows you to make a secure connection to another network over the Internet. VPNs can be used to access websites limited to certain regions, to protect your browsing activity from prying eyes on public WiFi networks and much more.
In very simple terms, a VPN connects your PC, smartphone or tablet to another computer (called a server) somewhere on the Internet. This allows you to browse the Internet via the Internet connection of that other computer. If that server is in another country, it looks like you're from that country. This allows you to access content that you normally can't see.
That's why VPNs are very popular these days. But, fun fact: a VPN was originally only a way to securely connect business networks over the internet or to give you access to a business network from home.
You use a VPN for:
- Bypassing geographical restrictions on websites
- View content on streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu
- Protect yourself from malicious people on unreliable WiFi hotspots
- Obtain a little online anonymity by hiding your true location
- Protect yourself from registrations on servers while downloading a torrent
- Remotely access business networks, as mentioned above
VPNs redirect all your network traffic to the network where the benefits - such as remote access to local network resources and lack of Internet censorship - are available. By the way, most operating systems now have integrated VPN support.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN works by sending the Internet connection of your device through the private server of your chosen VPN instead of through your Internet service provider. When your data is sent to the Internet, it comes from the VPN instead of your computer.
The VPN acts as a sort of intermediary when you connect to the Internet, hiding your IP address and protecting your identity. In addition, if your data is intercepted in any way, it is unreadable until it reaches its final destination.
A VPN thus creates a "private tunnel" from your device to the final destination of the data and hides your vital data in it. This is done via encryption.
What is encryption?
Encryption is the term used to describe how your data is kept private when using a VPN. Encryption hides information in such a way - by actually converting it into gibberish - that it cannot be read without first entering a very strong password. This password is known as a key. This key breaks the complicated code into which your data has been converted.
Only your computer and the VPN server know this key. The use of this key is known as decryption: the process of making encrypted information readable again. An everyday example: when you enter your credit card information on a shopping website, that information is encrypted and made unreadable until it reaches its final destination.
The encryption process
Different VPN services use different types of encryption processes. To keep things simple, the encryption process of a VPN generally runs roughly like this:
- When you connect to a VPN, it is done through a secure tunnel where your data is encrypted. This means that your data is converted into an unreadable code that moves between your computer and the server of the VPN.
- Your device is now seen by the Internet as being on the same local network as your VPN. Your visible IP address is therefore equal to the IP address of the VPN server to which you are connected.
- You can browse the Internet at will knowing that the VPN is a barrier and protects your personal information.
However, how effective this encryption of your data is depends on the encryption protocol of your VPN provider. A VPN protocol is the technology your VPN service uses to ensure you get the fastest and safest possible connection to the Internet. A VPN protocol, which combines encryption standards and transfer protocols, determines how your data is transmitted between your device and the VPN server.
The most important VPN protocols in use today:
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)
This protocol, developed by Microsoft, is one of the oldest protocols used on the Internet today. Therefore, it is only really useful if you use it on an older Windows operating system. A VPN that only offers this service is therefore not recommended.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP/IPSec)
This protocol is a combination of the aforementioned PPTP and the L2F protocol of the network hardware company Cisco Systems. This creates a more secure data tunnel than PPTP, but has no encryption or privacy features. That is why it is often bundled with IPSec, a security protocol.
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)
This protocol, again developed by Windows, is the VPN equivalent of the protocols used by websites for encryption purposes. It is a very secure protocol: only the two parties involved in the transfer of data can decrypt it.
Internet Key Exchange, version 2 (IKEv2)
This newer, more secure version of L2TP also stems from a collaboration between Microsoft and Cisco. Like its predecessor, it is often bundled with IPSec. This protocol is especially effective on mobile devices.
OpenVPN is an open source VPN technology and is seen as the best there is. Don't be put off by the term "open source". It just means that countless developers are constantly improving the technology and that everyone can use it and adapt it to their needs, be they individuals or companies.
Its effectiveness has been put to the test for many years through high-profile audits. OpenVPN is one of the most popular protocols and is considered to be the safest. It offers the same protection as the aforementioned protocols, but on an even larger scale.
Types of VPNs
Many VPNs work directly with the settings of an operating system, such as Windows, MacOS, iOS or Android, so any app that connects to the Internet is protected.
Standalone VPN services
This is the VPN most commonly used by individuals and small businesses. It uses an application that makes an encrypted connection to the private network.
You then use this connection to connect to the internet in general, whether or not through a browser, an app, and so on. As long as this application is running, all connections also run through the VPN connection.
Browser add-ons or extensions
Some VPNs work as a browser add-on. There is a plethora of add-ons you can install in browsers like Google Chrome or Firefox, while Opera comes with a pre-installed VPN. The downside of this is that your data is only protected if you specifically use that browser. Other apps are not protected. In addition, browser VPNs are usually slightly more vulnerable and prone to IP leaks.
If you decide to opt for a browser add-on or extension, ideally take one of a reputable company that also offers other VPN services. There are many shady browser add-ons. Prevents a scamming data harvester from getting hold of your data by reading reviews first. Always read the small print of the terms of service.
Another way to implement a VPN is via a VPN-enabled router. This is ideal if you have multiple devices that you want to protect because it protects every device connected to the router. This eliminates the need to install the VPN individually. What's more, you only need to log in once. Your router is then always connected to your VPN.
Connecting your router to a VPN is not as difficult as you might think. First of all, you need to sign up for a VPN service. Then you need a router. The most convenient type of router for this is one that is designed to support VPNs directly, so you only need to enter the VPN details without performing any technical tricks. These routers are often slightly more expensive than regular routers, but the convenience is worth the investment.
Free VPN vs. paid VPN
Whether you should go for a free or paid VPN depends entirely on your needs. How much value do you place on the x-number of euros that a paid VPN costs per month? How much value do you place on actual privacy? Let's talk about a few elements where free and paid VPNs differ from each other.
A free VPN is free. That must be better than paying for a VPN service, right? Well, not exactly. You get what you pay for. A free VPN service should compensate for the cost, and this is done by keeping logs, monitoring your activity and selling your browsing activity and data to third parties for marketing purposes. When you use a free VPN, you become the product.
A reputable paid VPN does not keep logs, monitor your activity or sell your browsing activity and data to third parties.
The nice thing about a free VPN is that you don't have to sign up or choose a form of payment. Even if a free VPN asks you for details, you can usually use fake information. In exchange, however, you become the product yourself.
The downside of many paid VPN services is that you have to sign up with your real information and a form of payment such as a credit card. Fortunately, some paid VPN services allow you to use anonymous payment methods such as gift vouchers and cryptocurrencies.
The last thing you want is for a free VPN service to register your browsing activity, but that's what a free VPN does. They keep track of what you do online. They record the sites you visit, the things you're looking for, the apps you use and other browsing data to sell them. In addition, if you run into legal problems, you can expect a free VPN service to hand over your information to the authority that requests it.
Most paid VPN services do not monitor or log user activity. You pay for their services, so there is no reason for them to resell your information.
Most free VPN services only use PPTP. However, reputable paid VPN services allow you to choose between PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP and OpenVPN protocols. If you can't remember what these abbreviations mean, read the section on protocols again!
A free VPN service can slow down your connection speed in several ways:
- Lack of bandwidth
- Unstable connections
- Injecting scripts on your computer to display ads
All these factors cause your connection speed to slow down. Paid VPN services invest in bandwidth and servers that can fix or prevent overcrowding and lack of bandwidth. In addition, a paid VPN service does not inject scripts into your computer to display your ads.
When you pay for a VPN service, you can expect someone to answer your submitted questions or comments and mails and pick up the phone when you call. The same cannot be said for a free VPN service.
In short: a free VPN does work, but it has a number of important drawbacks that you have to take into account.
Maybe you've heard of Tor. Tor stands for The Onion Router. This is a separate browser that takes privacy even further. Tor is an internet network protocol designed to completely anonymize the data transmitted over the network.
Using Tor software makes it difficult, if not impossible, for third parties to see your webmail, search history, social media messages or other online activities. They will also not be able to tell which country you are in by analyzing your IP address. This can be very useful for journalists, activists, business people and more.
When using Tor, online data collectors such as Google Ads and the little-known but powerful aggregator Acxiom are not able to perform internet traffic analysis and collect data about your internet usage. In principle, even intelligence services such as the AIVD will hardly be able to observe you.
Want to know more about Tor? For example, how it works, for which use it is really suitable, and so on? Then let us know via feedback!
VPNs are therefore ideal for masking your internet activity and accessing content that would not be available to you without a VPN. Hopefully the basis of how this is possible has become clear to you! For more information about VPNs go to Privecstasy.