What is a VPN? How Does it Work and Why Do You Need One?
A virtual private network, better known as a VPN, protects your online activity and privacy by hiding your true IP address and creating a secure, encrypted tunnel to access the internet. No snoops, trackers, or other interested third parties will be able to trace your online activity back to you.
Moreover, you can reach a new level of internet freedom by hopping servers across different countries to unblock restricted content. Once you’ve downloaded the VPN software, you can secure a device and access global content with a simple click.
But what is a VPN and how exactly does it protect you and keep your activity anonymous? While they’re extremely easy to use, the tech behind VPNs can be a little tricky to grasp. We’ve broken it down in simple terms below and have some VPN recommendations for you to try out.
VPN Explained: What is a VPN?
When you’re using the internet, your device is constantly exchanging data with other parties on the web. Without even realizing it, you’re often giving websites, and other prying eyes access to your real IP address (which gives away your true location), browsing history, operating system info and device identifiers, and plenty else.
A VPN assigns you a new anonymous IP address, reroutes your internet connection through a server in its network, and encrypts your data. This creates a secure tunnel between your device (e.g. smartphone or laptop) and the internet. It also masks your identity and online traffic from your internet service provider (ISP), government authorities, hackers, and other third parties.
A good VPN ensures that this sensitive data and online activity stays hidden. Because you can choose where your server is located, it also helps you use the internet more freely by bypassing censorship or unblocking geo-restricted services such as Netflix, DisneyPlus, HBOMax, and more.
Here’s a video we put together as a visual explainer:
How Does a VPN Work?
Connecting to a VPN is generally quite simple. After subscribing to a VPN provider, you download and install the VPN software. You then select a server you want to connect to, and the VPN will do the rest.
Want to know the ins and outs? Once the connection has been established, here’s how your data is transmitted through an encrypted tunnel.
- The VPN client software on your computer encrypts your data traffic and sends it to the VPN server through a secure connection. The data goes through your ISP, but it’s been so scrambled because of the encryption, they can no longer decipher it.
- The encrypted data from your computer is decrypted by the VPN server.
- Your data is then sent to the internet and receives a reply that’s meant for you, the user.
- The traffic is then encrypted again by the VPN server and is sent back to you.
- The VPN client on your device will decrypt the data so you can actually understand and use it.
VPN Advantages: Why Use a VPN service?
There are plenty of advantages of using a VPN. While some are more security and privacy-geared, others are just useful and can help you pull off cool tricks — like unblocking a streaming service’s entire international catalog. Here are some big VPN advantages:
Advantage 1: Anonymity online
Without a VPN, your location and identity can be easily traced, thanks to your IP address. Your IP address is unique to your internet connection. It is like an online postal code that tells people who you are and where you are. It also enables people to connect your online behavior to you.
A VPN hides your IP address, and therefore, your real location. When you use a VPN, your internet traffic is rerouted through an encrypted virtual tunnel and your online activities can only be traced back to the IP of the VPN server, but no longer to you and your real IP address.
By using a VPN, you ensure that websites, marketeers, streaming services, governments and cybercriminals can no longer identify you by your IP address, because they only see the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. Moreover, they won’t be able to find out your real location. Connect to a VPN server in the United Kingdom, and for all they know, that’s where you would be!
So by using a VPN your online activity will no longer be linked to your own IP address. This way, you can browse the internet and engage in whatever online activity you’d like without it being tracked. This prevents companies and governments from following what you do online.
Advantage 3: Secure browsing on public networks
Using a public Wi-Fi network, like at an airport, hotel or cafe can be risky. Other users on the same network (for example, those hackers and cybercriminals we mentioned) can easily tap into your data and personal information. Since you don’t want others to have access to, for instance, your email login, images/files or credit card information, it’s wise to use a VPN connection on these hotspots.
The VPN encrypts all of your data while you use the public Wi-Fi network. A hacker will only see encrypted matter and won’t be able to see or use your personal information.
Advantage 4: Fight online censorship
In a lot of countries (like China, Turkey, Russia, Iran) governments heavily censor the internet. These countries block access to certain internet services and websites. Examples of apps and websites that are often blocked are WhatsApp, Google, Instagram, YouTube, Skype, Spotify and Facebook.
Moreover, news websites and journalist platforms are often blocked because they are seen as a threat to the sitting government. In these countries, this censorship heavily impacts the freedom of speech of their citizens.
In some western countries there are also online restrictions. For example, many regions block the Pirate Bay website because they do not want their citizens to download illegal materials.
A VPN can help you bypass censorship and restrictions by allowing you to connect to a server in a different country. By doing this you can go online as if you were in that other country. This way you can gain access to websites and services that are not available in your own country.
Advantage 5: Bypass geographical restrictions
It’s not just countries that impose restrictions on the internet. Some online services also restrict access to their content in certain regions. This happens with streaming services that only have broadcasting rights in certain countries and not in others.
If you are on holiday or you moved to a different country, you might be unable to view your usual streams. A VPN will also enable you to connect to the internet via servers in your home country, so you can watch your favorite show or access blocked websites again. It also works the other way around: if you want to gain access to websites or streaming services from a different country (for example to watch a different version of Netflix), you can do so with a VPN.
Advantage 6: Anonymous downloading
Downloading certain torrents is illegal in some countries and more than ever before downloaders are tracked down and sometimes even prosecuted.
Of course, we are not advocating any illegal actions. However, we do understand people want online privacy and anonymity, not just when browsing the internet, but also when uploading and downloading files.
To make sure nobody knows what you are downloading or uploading you can use a VPN. Because of the encrypted traffic and the rerouted IP address, a VPN helps you download anonymously.
Advantage 7: Prevent a digital file
Advertising networks such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter are constantly collecting information about you through your online traffic. With this information, they can show you tailored ads but more importantly, they are free to sell this information to a third party.
By encrypting your data using a VPN these networks will have a harder time collecting information on you. They will also have less influence on what you see online.
What Limitations do VPNs Have?
A VPN has a lot to offer when it comes to privacy and security. However, it’s not the end all be all of cybersecurity and privacy. To browse the web safely and anonymously, you’ll need to observe some extra privacy measures, on top of using a VPN connection. For instance, you’ll still have to clear your cookies regularly. Moreover, there are also things a VPN simply can’t do.
Say you’re logged in to your Google account, you can be connected to a VPN on the other side of the world, Google will still be able to create a profile of you as an internet user. After all, they’ll simply correlate your search history with your account information, regardless of whether you change your IP address or not. The same is true for services like Facebook.
There are more ways in which online entities can determine your identity which a VPN doesn’t protect you from. When using Google Maps, for instance, you’re often required to turn on GPS. This means Google Maps can see exactly where you are. There are also more advanced ways that are used to identify internet users, such as browser fingerprinting. This method uses your browser’s and device’s settings to distinguish you from other internet users.
Moreover, a VPN can slow down your internet. Your data has to be sent through the VPN server, which means it can take slightly longer to end up where it needs to be. However, there are several effective ways to increase internet speeds while connected to a VPN.
And then there’s the fact that VPN users are sometimes actively thwarted. VPNs are banned in some countries. There are also websites, apps and services that will deny you access if you use a VPN.
In other words, a VPN does significantly improve your online privacy and safety and is a vital part of your privacy and security precautions. However, it’s important to be aware of the limitations that VPNs have and the additional measures required to compensate for these limitations. Fortunately, we have an article that highlights these measures and helps you to be anonymous online.