In the last decade, Internet usage has skyrocketed. With all of the recent innovations in technology and consumer electronics, connecting to the Internet is easier and more accessible than ever. In 2019, approximately 56 percent of the human population around the world has Internet access. That’s more than three billion people!
Unfortunately, with such widespread adoption comes new challenges. Monitoring, digital surveillance, and censorship can affect the way you connect. Leaked information about surveillance programs and rampant digital theft have made Internet users much more aware of their privacy and security online. One of the most effective tools for regaining your anonymity online and creating an open Internet experience is a VPN.
A VPN can keep your data secure as you browse the world wide web. At first glance, VPN services can seem very complicated and overwhelming. While there’s definitely a lot of complex operations going on behind the scenes, many VPN providers are simplifying the process so that even the most computer illiterate individuals can reap the benefits. To help you understand how a VPN can benefit you, here’s a guide going over all of the VPN basics.
What Exactly is a VPN?
First, let’s go over what a VPN is. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. When you connect to the Internet, your computer or device communicates with servers around the globe. These servers store the websites and digital content you’re trying to access. To make that connection, your information and data are exposed. It may be recorded by your Internet Service Provider, the servers you’re trying to access, government agencies, or even hackers.
VPNs work to keep all of this information away from prying eyes. They’re designed to make your connection and subsequent activity as private and secure as possible.
There is a lot of confusion out there regarding the legality of using a VPN service. Truth is, this technology is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Governments tend to address new innovations in technology pretty late in the game. As a result, many countries don’t have crystal-clear regulations.
In most countries, using a VPN is completely legal. However, certain countries do restrict it. China and North Korea are notorious for their crack-downs on VPN usage. It’s also not permitted in many middle-eastern countries and Russia either. Typically, you’ll find that VPN services are not legal to use in countries that already have strict censorship laws.
How VPNs Keep Your Data Secure
As mentioned in the previous section, connecting to the Internet without any protection leaves your data exposed. Everything you do is tracked by your Internet Service Provider. While people like to think that the Internet is an anonymous play space, nothing could be further from the truth. Everything you do can be traced back to you thanks to your IP address, which is a unique series of numbers assigned to your device.
A VPN works to hide all of your data by acting as the middle man. Before you even establish an Internet connection, your data is encrypted. This is what prevents your ISP from knowing what you’re doing. Then, your connection is sent to a VPN server. As it goes through this secured tunnel, your data is encrypted even further. Your Internet traffic also comes out the other end of the VPN tunnel with a brand-new IP address, which is linked to the service provider.
After your data leaves the VPN, it’s sent to the desired website or content server like any other form of web traffic. This process works both ways, so anything you view or download will go through the encryption process as well. It’s a very secure way of browsing. Even if your data was viewed by someone else, those encryption techniques would prevent them from making any sense of it.
Scrambling Your Data
Encryption is an effective way of making the information unreadable by anyone who steals it. Essentially, your data is scrambled, making it look like a random string of numbers. This process is done by the VPN client on your device, which is what is used to establish your secure connection.
Despite its complexity, encryption is a relatively simple process. Your standard, raw data is transformed by a secret key that only you have. No one else can figure out what that scrambled data means, keeping it secure as you browse.
There are a number of different types of encryption used. The most reliable is AES 256-bit encryption. It’s the same methods used by banks and government agencies.
Securing the Tunnel
VPN service providers can use one of many different security protocols to protect your data as it passes through the individual VPN server. Some protocols are more effective than others. As a result, the best VPN providers will offer multiple protocols for you to choose from.
OpenVPN is one of the newest security protocols available. It also happens to be one of the most secure. It’s the preferred security protocol by high-quality VPN service providers because it uses encryption on both ends. The key to the encryption code is only known by the sender and receiver of the connection. The great thing about OpenVPN is that it’s constantly being improved. It’s based on the TLS and SSL protocol and is completely open-sourced.
Also known as Point-to-Point Tunnel Protocol, PPTP is one of the earliest forms of online security. It was originally developed by Microsoft for early dial-up connections. While it is quite fast compared to other protocols, its age really shows. It’s considered to be one of the least secure methods available.
SSTP, or Secured Socket Tunnel Protocol, was also developed by Microsoft and can be found on Windows machines. It works very similarly to OpenVPN. Only two parties of the transfer can unencrypt the data, making it a very secure option.
This protocol combines methods from two separate methods. These include Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) and IPsec. It uses keys to encrypt and unencrypt data on both ends. While this might sound similar to something like OpenVPN, the way that this process is performed is very different. Generally, L2TP/IPsec is not believed to be as secure as some other options. In fact, many believe that large government surveillance entities have already developed a way to crack this protocol. Regardless of whether or not that is true or not, many VPN providers use this protocol because it’s already built into a lot of mobile phones.
TLS and SSL
SSL, which stands for Secure Sockets Layer, is the original method used to secure websites. You may have seen that acronym somewhere on your browser whenever you connect to an HTTPS website. TLS, or Transport Layer Security, is the new version of SSL and does a pretty good job at providing a secure connection.
IKEv2, which stands for Internet Key Exchange version 2, is one of Microsofts latest protocols. It’s built off of many of Microsoft’s previous security technologies, making it a great option for VPNs.
Even with the available security protocols, IP leaks can occur. This isn’t always at the fault of the VPN. They may happen because of how your device is configured or coding within a specific app you’re using. Whatever the case may be, there are some great VPN features that are designed to avoid them.
To get around IP leaks from a DNS server request, the best VPN providers have their very own DNS resolution system. These types of leaks happen because your device didn’t make a request through the VPN tunnel. DNS, or Domain Name System, requests happen each and every time you type a web address into your browser. Your computer has no idea what that address meant, so it has to check with a DNS server to find the associated website’s unique IP address. It’s like a super-fast phone book for the Internet. By default, your computer will connect to your ISP’s DNS server. These requests are logged, so your Internet Service Provider will always know what websites you visited. By bypassing the ISP server and using the DNS resolution system provided to you by the VPN, you can avoid IP leaks.
Leaks can also occur when there’s a faulty connection to the VPN server. Say, for example, that you’re browsing the web through the VPN server when you suddenly lose connection. All of a sudden, your IP address and data are unsecured and exposed. It can then be recorded, rending the VPN useless. To prevent this sudden exposure, VPNs can have built-in kill switches. As the name suggests, a kill switch terminates the Internet connection any time there’s a problem with the VPN server. It does so automatically and immediately.
The Truth About Online Anonymity: VPN Logging
So, with all of the available security protocols and leak prevention techniques, your identity and traffic data are completely anonymous, right? Well, not always. You see, the VPN provider itself may have some data that can be used to connect any online activity to you. To ensure that you’re getting the level of privacy you’re after, you need to check out a VPN provider’s logging policies.
These logging activities can make you less anonymous than you think. Usually advertised openly on their websites, a VPN’s logging policies can cover a number of different things. They may have connection logs, which typically record when you connect to a VPN server, how long you stayed on the server, when you eventually disconnected, and what source IP address you connected from. Some also have activity logs, which record how much data you use and what websites you visit. A service provider may have payment logs as well. Often times, these logs are justified by saying that this information is only used internally for service optimization. Needless to say, this is all counter-intuitive to the reason why most people invest in a VPN in the first place.
Headquarters and Legal Limitations
One big aspect that could affect your overall privacy is where the provider is located. While VPN companies have servers in many countries around the world, they have a single location where they are headquartered in. That location could affect their logging policy.
Many countries have strict data retention laws, essentially forcing VPN service providers to record some types of information about user activity. To get the most private service possible, It’s best to go with VPN providers that are based out of a privacy-friendly country. Some popular options include Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands. You should avoid VPNs in any country that’s known to a part of a surveillance alliance, such as Five Eyes.
Even if the company keeps a single piece of identifying information about you, there’s a risk of having your traffic tracked back to you. Companies are subject to the laws of their jurisdiction. For example, in the United States, VPN providers are forced to hand over any information they have if they receive a subpoena from the government. However, if the company has a zero-logs policy, they’ll have nothing to provide.
Another way that you can stay private is to use an anonymous payment system. This isn’t something that’s accepted by all VPNs. Those that do will typically take cryptocurrencies, such as BitCoin. Some will even accept store and merchant gift cards, allowing you to pay for your subscription without having to use your own bank account.
Why You Might Want to Use a VPN
Now that you understand how a VPN can secure your connection and keep your online activity private, let’s look into why you might need these types of services. In the past, VPNs were really only used by big companies and privacy advocates. Today, these services are used by a wide range of people for many different reasons.
Keeping Your Work Secure
If you work remotely, VPNs can save you a lot of headaches in the long run. This is especially true if you’re working on a big project that could potentially damage your company if it were ever to get out. VPNs don’t just hide your IP address, they also encrypt any type of data that is being sent or received. This protection applies no matter how large the file is. VPNs are an efficient and cost-effective way of ensuring that work isn’t stolen or compromised as its sent from your workspace to another.
Safety from Digital Thieves and Malware
If you’re like most people, you probably do a lot of important things online. The Internet has become the go-to method to pay bills, send and receive money between banks, apply for credit cards and loans, set up shipping to a home address, and so much more. All kinds of important information are sent through the web every second.
While the Internet has made doing all of those things much easier and more convenient, it has also made you more susceptible to theft. Skilled hackers can intercept your data and steal all of this information without you ever knowing. Cybercrimes are a very real threat when you’re doing anything online. If you’re on a public network, that threat is increased tenfold. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are unsecured and open to anyone, including those who have the knowledge and equipment to mine for personal data. A VPN can help to prevent these issues by securing your connection through encryption.
VPNs can help you torrent large files anonymously. The act of torrenting is generally viewed quite negatively by Internet Service Providers. Some ISPs may throttle data or cut off service completely if they see that you’re using a p2p client. This is especially true if you’re downloading copyrighted materials and they receive a notice requesting your information.
Generally speaking, torrenting is not a problem with a VPN. Its often treated like any other traffic. Though, that’s not always the case. If the provider keeps logs about your activity on their server network, they can still pass any copyright claims on to you. This could put you at risk.
Also, not all providers will permit torrenting. If they do, they may only allow it on specific servers. It’s a good idea to check with the VPN to see their rules and regulations regarding torrenting to see if the service can accommodate your needs.
The Internet has made millions of pieces of digital content available to people with just one click. However, that doesn’t always mean that you have the legal right to access it. Outdated licensing laws restrict access based on region. Have you ever noticed that the American Netflix library is considerably larger than that of other countries? This is because of licensing laws. Netflix and many other streaming platforms will block access to certain movies and television shows if they don’t have the appropriate license for your country.
This is all done through location filters. Your IP address gives away your information to the streaming platform’s servers. If that movie you want to watch isn’t available for your country, you’ll be met with an error code.
VPNs can unblock content by tricking the hosting server into thinking you’re in a different place entirely. Most VPN companies have a large network that spans many different countries. To view another country available movie titles, all you have to do is connect to a server in that respective country. The new IP address assigned to you by the VPN will make it look like that’s where you’re connecting from.
Of course, not all VPNs are well-suited for streaming. Slow connection speeds and a lack of available servers may prevent you from gaining access. Not only that, but may popular streaming platforms go out of their way to block IP addresses from known VPNs. Luckily, more and more VPN providers are getting around this obstacle by introducing obfuscating technology, which disguises the IP address even further.
Just because you’ve switched on private browsing mode in your web browser doesn’t mean that you’re anonymous. Private browsing features simply don’t record your history or download any cookies. Everything else can be viewed by your ISP. VPNs can take your ISP out of the equation and actually provide you with a private browsing experience.
Open Internet Access
A VPN is the only way that you can experience a truly open Internet. It’s not uncommon for websites to be blocked by network owners. You may not be able to gain access to certain websites due to restrictions put on the network by your employer, school, or government. VPNs can get around these blocks because of the encryption process. As mentioned earlier, DNS requests are made every time you visit a website. Content filters work by reading the request and blocking access. Because VPNs have their own DNS server, the requests are fulfilled without intervention from the filtering system.
Tor and VPNs
Tor is a popular web browser that has the same goal as a VPN, to provide unrestricted access to the Internet. While the final product is the same, Tor and VPNs get the job done very differently. Thus, they can actually be used together. You can connect to the VPN first, then use Tor as your browser. It’s double the protection. However, you may experience a serious dip in performance and connection speeds. Your data is being encrypted and masked multiple times over, which takes time and a lot of processing power.
Prevent Price Gouging
If you have ever bought an airline or hotel ticket online before, you’re probably all-too-familiar with the concept of dynamic pricing. This pricing technique, while annoying, is not illegal. Essentially, companies will adjust the price based on your location or how many times you’ve viewed the product. It’s a common tactic that’s used by many industries. Prices may be higher for certain products or services if you connect to the website from a wealthier area. This is done because the company thinks that you have more money to pay.
If you visit the page too many times to check on the product’s price, the company knows that you really want it, thus increasing the price tag. With a VPN, none of that affects the cost of something you’re trying to buy. You’ll be able to view the true price and get a fairer deal.
Is Connecting to a VPN Difficult?
For some of the best VPN providers out there, connecting is a breeze. VPNs are much more accessible to the average Internet user than they were in the past. This all thanks to advances in technology and software. Most providers have their own dedicated app that can be downloaded on your computer or mobile device. You can usually find them on the provider’s website or on their respective app store.
Once you have downloaded and installed the VPN client, you can log into your account and get started. All you have to do is choose the desired server you want to use and initiate the connection. Depending on which provider you go with, you may also have the option to customize VPN settings.
What Kinds of Devices Can Be Used with a VPN?
Take a look around your home and you’ll probably find more than one Internet-capable device. To protect all of your Internet activity, you’ll need to utilize the VPN with each one of them.
Most web users will at least connect their computers to the VPN. Providers often have standalone software for Windows and Mac computers. Linux is also commonly supported, though the setup process is a bit more detailed. You may have to manually configure your machine’s connection settings or use a specific distro.
Browser support is also pretty standard. Downloadable extensions let you use the VPN for your browsing session. Everything you need to connect is right in the browser, which simplifies the process even further.
When it comes to mobile devices, there are typically apps for Android and iOS gadgets. You can connect both smartphones and tablets to the network. VPNs are very useful for staying secure on the go, especially when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi.
Beyond computers and mobile gear, some VPN providers have support for other platforms. These include gaming consoles, set-top TV boxes, Kodi boxes, smart speakers, and even Internet-capable appliances, such as Samsung’s Family Hub refrigerator. While your chosen VPN may support these platforms, that doesn’t mean that there will be a separate app to download. Oftentimes, these devices have software limitations that prevent you from using a VPN app in the traditional way. Depending on the software used, you may have to sideload apps or use APK files.
Alternatively, you can configure your Internet router to use the VPN service automatically. This can be a bit more technically demanded. It involves getting into the router’s firmware, which requires a bit more work than simply plugging it in. Luckily, most VPNs that support router connections provide some detailed instructions on how to get the job done. You will need to make sure that the router is compatible. Using a VPN connection and all the encryption that comes with it takes a lot of extra processing power, so basic routers aren’t equipped to handle the task.
Are There Any Disadvantages of Using a VPN?
If you’re thinking about investing in a VPN service, there’s a lot to consider. For all intents and purposes, VPNs are great. They offer more security, better privacy, and can help you explore all that the world wide web has to offer without any restrictions. With that being said, there are some drawbacks. VPNs can change the way you use the Internet, for better or for worse. Here are some possible disadvantages to think about.
VPNs are not free to run. Providers have a large network of servers to maintain. To keep the lights on and pay for continual improvements, service providers have to charge a subscription fee. Plan prices vary between providers. Generally, prices are pretty modest at around $10.00 or so a month. However, those affordable fees can add up quite quickly over the course of a few years.
To help make their services easier on your wallet, many providers offer longer plans with deep discounts. They have higher upfront costs but are much more affordable over the length of the plan. For example, you can purchase annual, biennial, or triennial plans. If you pay for three years in advance, that $10.00 a month may be discounted down to the equivalent of $2.00 a month. It’s a cost-effective option that can help you save quite a bit.
VPN providers usually also offer other perks to help you feel more comfortable with your investment. Some offer a short free trial to give you a chance to test the service before you commit. Others have a money-back guarantee, which lets you get a refund if you’re not satisfied. Either way, the subscription fee is a worthy investment. It’s a small price to pay for online security.
Slower Connection Speeds
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage you’ll experience is a dip in performance. Sure, connecting to a VPN might be as easy as clicking a virtual button on a piece of software. However, there’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes. Encrypting your data and sending it through the VPN requires more processing power than using a standard ISP connection. Your data has to go through an extra hurdle before it makes its way to the final digital destination. As a result, all VPNs will result in a speed decrease.
How noticeable that decrease will be depends entirely on the quality of the provider’s servers. VPN companies engineer their networks to be as fast and reliable as possible. The individual servers are optimized to handle a lot of traffic. The best VPN options will not have a significant effect.
There are a lot of additional factors that can affect the speed you experience. One is the server you’re connected to. Typically, it takes a bit longer to connect to servers that are located on the other side of the world. You may also have speed issues when connected to smaller, lesser-known countries. Of course, VPNs can only work with the connection speeds you already have. These services won’t increase your speed in any way, as their capability is limited to what you can already achieve from your ISP.
Changing Digital Landscape
This issue isn’t really a thing you’ll need to worry about currently. Instead, it’s something that you need to keep an eye out for. As we mentioned earlier, using a VPN isn’t illegal in most countries. However, that could change in the future. Countries like China and Iran are getting bolder with their restrictions on these types of services. It’s important that you keep up to date about laws in your countries to make sure that you’re using a VPN in a way that doesn’t get you into trouble.
Even if laws stay the same, a website’s or companies approach to dealing with VPNs could change at any moment. Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer have made their stance on VPNs known. They are continually blocking IP addresses to restrict access. While your VPN may work to unblock sites now, that could all shift tomorrow. Technology is always changing and new innovations are created regularly. As VPN services become more widespread, more companies and government agencies are seeking ways to crack their encryption techniques. You might be interested to read my Best VPN for Netflix guide, to make sure your next VPN can unblock this streaming service.
Choosing the Right VPN
With so many VPN providers out there, it can be tough to separate the good from the bad. In addition to great security protocols, a true zero-logs policy, and strong encryption techniques, keep the following things in mind when you’re looking for the right VPN for your needs.
A VPN service is only as good as its network. If you want truly unlimited access to the Internet, it’s good to have a large network of servers to choose from. Some of the most popular VPNs, such as NordVPN and ExpressVPN, have several thousand servers. These large networks give you the opportunity to see the digital offerings of countries around the world.
Optimized and Shared Servers
While not a requirement, optimized servers a great added perk that can make your VPN experience that much better. Many providers have servers that are made for one specific purpose. They may be fine-tuned for fast torrenting or smooth streaming. Some providers even have dedicated servers for accessing certain websites and streaming platforms.
Shared servers are great for getting an extra layer of security. Once you’re connected to these servers, your data goes through one more encryption tunnel. It’s a double VPN that scrambled your data even more.
Chances are, you already have an adblocker or malware scanner on your computer. However, the VPN can give you even more protection from online threats. Built-in security features like this will prevent your device from connecting to blacklisted websites. This is especially useful if you’re using the VPN on your router, as the malware scanner on your device is typically bypassed.
Unlimited data is a must-have these days. In the past, many VPNs had data caps in place. The providers would then throttle your speeds or prevent you from connecting to a server until the next billing cycle. For some of the most popular providers out there, this limitation is gone. However, you may come across a few that are still holding on to these old-fashioned cash grabs. Bandwidth limits can put a damper on your streaming activity, so it’s always best to go with an option that lets you use as much data as you want.
Good Customer Support
If you ever come across an issue that’s preventing you from using the VPN to its full potential, you’ll need to get help from the company’s support team. Unfortunately, customer service is an area in which many providers fall short. Stick with providers that have multiple forms of support. This includes live chat, email, and a detailed troubleshooting guide.
Are Free VPNs Any Good?
Nothing good in life comes for free, including VPNs. There are many “free VPN” options out there. While they are great for getting started and testing the waters, these free services are not something you want to be using long term. For one, the lack of income will prevent the providers from being able to offer truly great service. Most free services use outdated security methods and have apps that are just plain difficult to use.
Secondly, you may inadvertently give your information away without realizing it. VPN companies need to make money somehow. To offset the costs of their free service, these providers will often sell their logged data to third parties for profit.
All in all, VPNs are a must-have for any modern Internet user who cares about their privacy and security. Despite all of the joy and convenience that the Internet brings to our daily lives, the threats that come along with it are something you shouldn’t ignore. Big-time data breaches, government surveillance, and targeted cybercrimes are becoming more and more common. By using a high-quality VPN, you can stay safe and private no matter what you’re doing online.
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