What is a VPN and Why do I Need One?
It’s no secret the internet isn’t as private as it used to be. Eavesdroppers are becoming sophisticated with their tricks and can easily see the sites you visit and the information you send. Fortunately, there’s something that you can do about it – use a VPN!
Almost every internet user has heard of VPNs. But what is a VPN, and how can it help you in your everyday life? A VPN – or Virtual Private Network – is a tool designed to give you an additional layer of security and privacy whenever you are online. It does so by encrypting your traffic and spoofing your IP address to hide your identity, location, and data.
But that’s not all a VPN does. With the right VPN provider, you can also bypass censorship and content restrictions and access virtually any website.
How a VPN Works
A VPN works by encrypting and routing your online traffic through a secure tunnel to a private server operated by your chosen VPN provider. This server then hides your IP address and gives you a new one depending on its location. This anonymizes your online traffic and allows you to access the internet without restrictions.
VPNs also re-route your traffic from your ISP’s DNS servers – which your ISP uses to know all the websites you visited. If your VPN provider doesn’t log such data, nobody can ever see your online activities.
Why you need a VPN
Below are a few ways that you can take advantage of the technology for privacy and security as well as online freedom.
Surf the Web Anonymously
Whenever you connect to the internet, you leave a digital footprint that can be traced back to your real identity. The websites you visit, apps you use, cybercriminals, and government organizations that track online activities can always see your IP address. Through this, they can then know your actual location and your ISP.
You can use a VPN to mask your real IP address with a shared IP address, making it impossible for anyone to trace your online activities back to you.
Hide your Activities from your ISP & Government
ISPs usually log all your online activities, and so they can always see the websites you access, and at what times. The government and other agencies also have access to this data, something that we surely can’t be comfortable about.
You can prevent them from logging your activities by encrypting your traffic using a VPN. This way, all your traffic will appear like a garbled mess to them, and so they can’t tell what you were doing online.
Protect Data over Public Wi-Fi
Public hotspots may offer convenience, but they are also a haven for hackers. These hotspots usually have low or no security, and so hackers can easily infiltrate your device and steal your data. Actually, an Austrian man had Bitcoin worth $100k stolen while using a Restaurant’s WiFi hotspot!
A VPN prevents this by encrypting your traffic, making it impossible for people to sniff on your traffic and steal sensitive data such as passwords or access your device.
Whenever you are traveling to a country like China or the Middle East where censorship runs rampant, you don’t have to let content restrictions hold you back. Instead, you can use a VPN to spoof your location and access any site on the internet.
This means that while you are in Dubai, you can fire up your VPN and use call on Skype or Whatsapp, services that are blocked in the country.
Access Geo-Restricted Services
In addition to circumventing oppressive internet censoring, VPNs also enable you to view media that isn’t licensed for use in your home country. Tried to watch a video only to see that the content is “not available in your country”? It can be quite frustrating.
Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, etc. also use geo-restrictions to block some countries as well as to create different libraries for each country. You can use a VPN, for example, to unblock Netflix US outside the country – It’s 2 times larger than Netflix UK, which is the third-largest after Canada.
How Secure is a VPN?
Generally, VPNs are safe to use. However, just like with any other software, you are bound to encounter a few bad apples. The wrong VPN can open you up to the very same things you are trying to avoid. It’s therefore important to carefully vet your provider before opting in.
Some of the key aspects you should look at include:
- The Provider’s reputation: Before you trust a service with your privacy and security, you should have an idea about their reliability and trustworthiness. One way you can gain an understanding of a VPN provider is by looking at customer reviews based on real user experience.
- Protocols & Encryption: Does the VPN meet the VPN industry standards? Many VPNs provide weak security features, and that will just give you a false sense of security. Find a provider that offers best-in-industry encryption and protocols – more on this later.
- Logging policy: A VPN may have the most robust encryption, but if it keeps logs, all that can go up in smoke in no time. Some of the logs a VPN provider may keep include your online activity, IP address, and connection timestamps. Logs make you less anonymous and in some cases, can be traced back to you.
VPN Encryption & Protocols
A VPN protocol is a set of instructions that define how data is transmitted between your device and the VPN server.
Here are the most popular VPN protocols today:
- OpenVPN – An open-source protocol, OpenVPN is highly popular among VPN users thanks to its robust security and high versatility. The protocol can be used on a wide range of devices over any port with UDP or TCP.
- IKEv2/IPsec– Internet Key Exchange, Version 2 is a Microsoft built that delivers fast connections. The protocol comes pre-configured in many operating systems, including Windows, macOS, and iOS.
- L2TP/IPsec– A combination of PPTP and Cisco’s L2F protocol, Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol is entirely secure and one of the fastest VPN protocols. However, it isn’t as reliable as OpenVPN but is much stronger than PPTP. The protocol is commonly used with mobile devices.
Most VPNs also bundle in PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol), an older protocol that’s barely secure by today’s standards.
Overall, OpenVPN remains the top-recommended VPN protocol. The protocol is robust and it strikes a perfect balance between security and speed.
Encryption allows VPNs to convert your data to ciphertext and protect it while it’s in transit. AES 128-bit, AES 256-bit, and the asymmetrical RSA are the most common ciphers. While all the three are highly secure, AES 256-bit is miles ahead of the pack in terms of security.
The extent of your anonymity differs from one VPN to another. Other than the quality of your VPN encryption and protocol, your provider’s jurisdiction and logging policies critical.
Some of the logs a provider may keep include your:
- Online activities
- IP address
- Connection timestamps
- Payment records
Countries like the US, UK, and most fourteen eyes members, have mandatory data retention laws that require all ISPs (including VPN providers) to monitor users’ activities.
VPN Performance and Speed
Generally, a VPN will affect your internet speeds. Mainly this is a result of the encryption and decryption of data during transmission but the routing does play a significant role as well. As such, connecting to the closest server can help you reduce the impact on your connection speed. Further, some VPNs are generally faster than others due to superior technology and infrastructure.
Are VPNs Legal to Use?
VPNs are perfectly legal to use in most countries. However, this doesn’t mean every use case is legal. Certain uses are questionable is countries like a few countries like China, Turkey, Iran, and North Korea. Using a VPN for tasks that don’t have legal implications (like streaming Hulu outside the US or hiding your activities) is perfectly safe.
Getting started with a VPN
VPNs are pretty easy to use. All you need to do is create an account with a VPN provider and download their app on your device. Most providers offer dedicated custom apps for the various platforms allowing you to establish a connection within a matter of minutes.
However, setting up the VPN only takes you half the way. You’ll need to select the right server to unleash the power of your VPN.
For instance, if you are a British resident trying to access US Netflix, you will need to select a server located in the US.
Whether you want to evade ISP monitoring or you want to bypass censorship and geo-restrictions, a VPN comes in handy. It can also keep you safe from hackers lurking on Public Wi-Fi hotspots and prevent the authorities and data-hungry companies like Google from following you around the web.