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What is a VPN?

The internet is something many of us take for granted without paying a whole lot of attention to our online privacy, anonymity, and security.

Unfortunately, the virtual world can be every bit as dangerous as the real world. Cybercriminals routinely target users of public wireless networks to intercept information being sent between their computers and the internet. Unscrupulous advertisers try their hardest to track your every online activity to build an intimate profile of those they want to target.

These are some of the risks and challenges that a virtual private network (VPN) can mitigate. In the simplest terms, a VPN serves as an extra layer of protection between your computer and whichever website or online service you’re connecting to. A VPN will reroute all your traffic through a secure remote server and will encrypt all outgoing data to protect you from eavesdropping and other online threats.

In this article, we’ll explain in detail how VPNs work and how they can help protect you.

A Beginner’s Introduction to VPN

Whenever you use the internet, you’re constantly sending and receiving data. It might be an email, pictures, account logins, or financial information, or anything else. Typically, this data travels directly between your computer and a remote server, such as a website or web app.

A lot of this data will be encrypted. You can tell if a connection is encrypted by looking for the padlock icon beside the address in your browser. Any website that requires you to enter login information or other potentially sensitive information should feature this icon since it shows that your connection is encrypted by Transport Layer Security (TLS). However, there is also a lot of data that isn’t encrypted, such as data sent between certain internet-connected apps or any website that doesn’t feature the padlock icon.

When you’re using a VPN, the client software installed on your device will connect directly to a server operated by the VPN company. This provides a secure tunnel in which all data sent from your device is encrypted. In other words, nothing leaves your computer and heads out onto the public internet without being encrypted first. That way, wireless eavesdroppers can’t intercept your internet traffic, and third parties like internet service providers won’t be able to see which websites you’re browsing.

How VPNs Hide Your IP Address

Every device connected to the internet has a unique identifier called an internet protocol (IP) address. Every address is unique and can be used to identify you online and trace you.

Your ISP is responsible for providing your IP address, which you need to get online. Most importantly, your IP address makes it possible to trace your online activities back to you via your ISP. Everyone else on the internet can see your IP address. Try googling ‘what is my IP’ now, and you’ll find out what your public IP address is.

Although your IP address doesn’t give away sensitive information like contact details or exact geographical position, there’s still a lot it does give away. Firstly, an IP address shows who your ISP is. Secondly, it shows your approximate location, such as your country and city. This is how websites can offer localized experiences, such as local search results and locally relevant ads.

Because your IP address is unique to you, it can be used to trace your online activities, such as every website you’ve visited or file you’ve downloaded, back to you. This means online surveillance regimes and hackers alike can track you, just like advertisers and others can for legitimate and legal purposes.

When you connect to the internet via a VPN, your public IP address is provided by the VPN service provider rather than your ISP. This typically changes every time you connect to the VPN service. Furthermore, a decent VPN provider will encrypt all your online traffic, and they won’t log your original IP address either. This makes it virtually impossible for anyone online to track your activities back to you since they won’t be able to get any further than the VPN server, which is usually entirely anonymous.

A Good VPN Does More Than Just Hide Your IP Address

There are many ways to anonymize your online activities. For example, you can use the web away from home, connect to the Tor network (also known as the dark web), or connect via a proxy server. However, none of these are as effective as using a VPN. Public networks are notoriously vulnerable to eavesdropping attacks, the dark web is infamous for being a hotbed for criminality, and a proxy server doesn’t encrypt your traffic.

A good VPN doesn’t just hide your IP address – it also encrypts your data so that you can use the internet safely from any network. VPN services use a range of encryption protocols to achieve this, such as IP Security (IPSec), the Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP), and the Layer 2 Tunnelling Protocol (L2TP). These protocols encrypt your data using a 256-bit algorithm, which is practically impossible to hack.

Many VPN services also offer servers in countries all over the world. For example, the popular ExpressVPN service has thousands of servers spread across 94 countries.

VPNs are available for virtually all internet-connected devices, including smartphones or other mobile devices. In some cases, you can even install a VPN app on your router itself to protect everything connected to your home or office network.

Another critical feature of VPN that you should always look out for is a kill switch. A kill switch will automatically disable your internet connection if the connection to the VPN server drops. That way, you won’t suddenly and unexpectedly end up leaving your online identity exposed.

The best VPN providers also won’t log your activities or your original IP address. That said, choosing a poor VPN service can have quite the opposite effect to the point it can even leave you more vulnerable than not using one at all. That’s why it’s essential to choose a trustworthy service backed up by plenty of good reviews and, ideally, independent studies and verification.

When Should You Use a VPN?

Ideally, you should use a VPN all the time. However, there are some drawbacks to consider, even if you’re using a highly reputable service. The most significant of these is that because your internet traffic has to do a longer roundtrip via a remote VPN server, it will reduce your connection speed. With a decent service, any reduction in speed should be pretty insignificant, especially if you’re connecting to a server in the same country. Still, they can be substantial if the server is located overseas.

You should always use a VPN when you are connected to a public wireless network, especially ones that aren’t protected by a WiFi passkey. These are highly vulnerable to eavesdropping, but a VPN can overcome this by encrypting all your traffic. This makes VPNs essential for remote work, and it’s precisely why most businesses require their remote employees to connect via the company VPN before they can access the apps and data they need for work.

It’s also essential to use a VPN whenever you’re sending sensitive data, such as login details or financial information over the internet. In addition, a VPN can protect your anonymity and privacy no matter what you’re using the internet for whether it’s shopping online, sending emails, or you simply don’t want to be tracked by third parties.