These days it’s more important than ever to protect your online privacy, and one of the methods that helps to achieve that is hiding behind a virtual private network. How does VPN work, why it’s important to use it, and what to look for when choosing one for yourself? VPN explained for dummies, read on below.
Introduction to VPNs and why they are important
VPN, or a virtual private network, is a term used to describe a type of network connection that’s used to hide your online identity, allowing you to appear online as someone else. This has several important benefits you should be aware of.
First of all, changing your online identity will allow you to bypass some regional restrictions. For example, if you’re living in country X, where access to a certain online service is blocked, you can use VPN to make other servers think that you’re actually coming from country Y, where the access is not restricted, thus allowing you to access the service, even though you’re still physically sitting in country X.
Secondly, VPN can hide the data, such as which websites you’re visiting, from your Internet Service Provider. This may come in handy if you don’t trust your ISP for whatever reason, but you must remember, that now you will be putting trust in the VPN company instead. The VPN company will know everything you’re doing online. Previously it was ISP who knew it all. So basically, it’s up to you to decide which one is more trustworthy. You must also remember that if you’ll try to use VPN to do some shady stuff, the authorities will find you anyway – a VPN company is obliged to cooperate with authorities in the same way your ISP is.
VPNs also make it much safer to connect to public networks. It’s convenient to use public Wi-Fi when you’re in a café or at the airport, especially when your personal data transfer is limited, but it’s also risky – there may be malicious users connected to the same network, spying on unaware users like yourself in hopes to steal your banking info or other important details. With VPN your data will be encrypted and thus it won’t be of use to any malicious users who may be spying on public networks.
Finally, using a VPN makes it much harder for companies to spy on you and your online activity. When you’re browsing the Internet without VPN, various companies will collect info about you and whatever you may be interested in to show you relevant advertisements. While it doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem at first glance if that info is leaked it may allow hackers to learn a thing or two about you, which can be then used to execute certain social engineering techniques. For example, if they learn that you’re a client of bank X, they may pretend to be their employee, making their phishing efforts much more convincing. Not to mention that a lot of companies sell the collected data, so you never know who knows what about you – better safe behind a VPN than sorry.
How VPNs work and the techniques they use
Under normal circumstances, when you’re accessing any website, your connection rarely goes straight to the destination – it travels through several additional servers for various reasons we won’t be covering here. However, the final server will still know that you are you because your system’s IP is passed from server to server, allowing the final server to identify you.
What VPN does, is it introduces extra VPN servers between you and your destination, but these servers are special. When the connection goes through them, the IP address of your system changes to theirs. In simpler words: from now on your system on the Internet appears to be one of the VPN servers. You hide behind the VPN server and it starts to act on your behalf. Other servers on the Internet will think that you’re using one of the VPN servers as your own PC. They will know the VPN server’s IP, but they will not know yours – only the virtual network will know your real IP.
Types of VPNs and features
A good VPN is not only about establishing a secure connection that will allow you to remain anonymous online – there are also additional features you should look for if you want to have the best experience possible.
The most obvious one is encryption – a good VPN should encrypt your data, as that’s one of the main reasons to use a VPN in the first place.
A kill switch is a very useful addition that will block any outgoing connections until a connection with the VPN server is established. When you lose the connection to your VPN server, a kill switch will instantly cut off your connection, preventing your IP and the data from being leaked to the Internet.
IP shuffle is an interesting feature to look for. Instead of using one and the same VPN IP over and over, you will get an entirely new IP at set intervals, such as every 10 minutes. This will make tracking you infinitely harder because even if someone somehow was able to confirm that it’s who’s behind a specific VPN IP address, you’ll be using a different one shortly anyway.
No-logs policy is also something cool, at least in theory, because in reality, it comes down to trust. Certain VPN companies may give promises of not keeping any activity logs, allowing for even more anonymity online, but there’s no way for you to confirm if the company tells the truth or not.
Sometimes you may want to use VPN only for certain apps, and allow others to work normally – that can be achieved with the feature called split tunneling.
Pitfalls to watch out for when using VPNs
While a VPN can be a brilliant tool in certain cases, it does have some shortcomings. First of all, a VPN may give you a false sense of security. Just because you’re using a VPN doesn’t mean you’re automatically invincible online. You should still use the Internet reasonably and consciously to avoid all kinds of online dangers – a VPN is just one layer of defense.
Some services may ban VPN IP addresses altogether. All VPN IPs will become publicly known sooner or later, which makes it easy for companies to ban them. If you want to use VPN to get through some regional restrictions, make sure that your VPN isn’t banned by the website you’re trying to reach.
Impacts of using VPNs on device and network performance
Due to how a VPN work, you may be experiencing a slightly worse network performance than usual. That’s because your connection will travel through a number of additional VPN servers before reaching the final destination. Depending on the chosen VPN, the difference may be significant or barely noticeable. A rule of thumb would say that paid VPN services offer better and more stable network performance on average.
Device performance, on the other hand, is generally not affected noticeably and shouldn’t be a concern.
How to select the best VPN for your needs
Depending on your personal needs, you may want to get a different VPN service. You should compare the available features and pricing plans of each one and choose the VPN solution that matches your needs and gives you the best bang for the buck. For example, an IP switch may not be something that’s extremely important for your basic needs, so there’s no point in paying extra just to get that feature.
The most important thing, however, is choosing a trusted VPN company that has already proven itself to be reliable. After all, you’ll be giving away all of your personal information to that company, so choosing a company you can trust is an absolute must.
Summary and conclusion
A VPN service can prove to be an extremely useful thing to use but do you need it? Not necessarily. However, it does help immensely in certain scenarios and protects your online activity from ill-intentioned individuals. It allows you to bypass regional restrictions and hides your data when using public networks, while also reducing the risk of becoming a target of hackers capable of carrying out social engineering attacks. In other words, it’s up to you to decide if the benefits are worth the cost, but a solid VPN is undoubtedly an invaluable tool – hopefully, with the help of our simple guide, you’ll be able to choose a perfect solution for yourself.