VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. In its most basic form, a VPN simply turns you into a ghost on the web, making you virtually untraceable.
In fact, it gives you a cloak of invisibility, hiding you from anyone having the wherewithal to take a glimpse at a network’s backend to see what each user is doing on the web.
VPNs date back to 1996 when Microsoft developed the first VPN protocol called PPTP. Originally, VPNs were created for businesses, organizations, and governments.
However, cybercrimes were almost unheard of in 1996 and hacking was mostly done by teenage geeks who simply got a kick out of breaking into someone’s PC.
Since then, the internet has evolved tremendously and so has the seriousness of hacking and cybercrimes.
It is estimated that the average cost of a data breach will exceed $150 million by 2020. New forms of malware and hacking techniques continue wreaking havoc for individuals as well as organizations by causing data losses and shamelessly violating individual privacy.
These state of affairs naturally created a demand for VPNs to be made available for the consumers, since privacy is a constitutional right for every individual.
Today, the VPN industry is worth $23.6 billion dollars, and a large fraction of the industry is represented by consumer-level VPN providers.
But what makes VPNs so powerful as vanguards of online privacy and how exactly do they work?
We’ll walk you through the basics below:
How VPNs Work
To understand how VPNs work, start by focusing on the three words; Virtual, Private, and Network.
A VPN assigns a virtual IP address which hides your real IP address. Basically, a VPN will act on your behalf when you want to interact with any part of the internet.
For example, when you visit a website through your normal internet route, you are directly communicating with the website through your real IP address.
But when you have a VPN equipped, it is the VPN server that will do all the communicating for you.
This means that the website will only see the VPN server and not the real user, which is you. As a result, your identity remains anonymous and hidden.
VPNs are private because they transmit your data through an encrypted tunnel – a protected layer of information – that is indecipherable to any third party even if they managed to somehow intercept your communication.
For example, if someone tries to hack you and find out the contents of the data you’re transmitting over the internet, they will only see meaningless gibberish and fail to learn anything about you.
Finally, all VPNs consist of a network of remote servers that make it possible to transmit your data through a private encrypted tunnel and assign you a virtual IP address.
All these elements come together to give you a level of online privacy that would otherwise be unavailable to you without the use of a VPN.
Why do you need a VPN?
There are many valuable use cases of a VPN. Let’s go over some of the reasons why a VPN should be a part of your daily routine of online activities:
- Attain online privacy: The threats to online privacy are higher today than ever before. Facebook’s recent scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and data breaches of countless individuals as well as organizations are sufficient proof of the dangerous times we live in. By hiding your real IP address and adding strong encryption, it becomes almost impossible to trace you online.
- Stay safer from cybercriminals: VPNs also help you stay protected from cybercriminals. For instance, if you use public Wi-Fi hotspots available in cafes, hotels, airports etc. you can easily be a victim of a data breach by a hacker on the same network. This is because public Wi-Fi have no security or password protection and are thus very easy to hack. VPNs apply encryption and hide your IP address, which rules out the possibility of you being a victim of a targeted attack. It is especially important to use a VPN when you’re accessing dangerous places like the Dark Web.
- Unblock censored websites: Censorship on the internet, particularly on social media in different parts of the world is a persistent issue that many users have to face. One of the effects of a VPN is that it allows you to access blocked websites by using an offshore server location. So, if a website is blocked in your region, you can simply connect to a server location where the website IS still working, and you will get instant access this way.
- Access geo-restricted streaming services: Many streaming services work only with one or few specific countries and are geo-restricted everywhere else in the world. For instance, CBS is only available in the US, Foxtel in Australia, BBC iPlayer in the UK, and there are many more such geo-restricted streaming channels. In fact, even the globally available platforms like Netflix don’t offer the same library of content throughout all regions. VPNs can bypass these registrations with the help of their extensive network of servers distributed throughout the world.
- Download torrents safely: In many parts of the world, torrent websites are banned. In those where these aren’t banned, it is still a big risk to download through torrents because of anti-piracy laws. Since VPNs keep your identity hidden for all third parties, not even your ISP will have any idea that you are downloading torrents.
- Buy cheaper airline tickets: VPNs can actually help you buy cheaper tickets. How? Well, ticket prices vary from region to region. By changing server locations through a VPN, you can obtain tickets for a cheaper price than what you may be getting in your actual location.
- Securely access work files remotely: The secure private tunnel that a VPN establishes allows employees to access their workplace portals remotely. Although it is possible to remotely access a work computer, it is much more secure to do so through a VPN configuration.
How to Setup a VPN (Virtual Private Network)
It is fairly easy to set up a VPN service today as most of the providers offer dedicated apps that you can simply install on your device/system to get your VPN working.
Here’s how this generally works:
- Subscribe to a VPN service and make your account on the provider’s website.
- Choose a subscription plan that suits your needs. Most providers offer multiple plans (usually 1-month, 6-months, and 1-year).
- Download and install the VPN app on your device/system.
- Launch the app installed and enter your login credentials.
- Simply select a VPN server of your choice and wait a while for the connection to establish.
And that’s it! With these simple steps, you can setup a VPN and obtain all the benefits briefly discussed earlier.
Virtual Private Network Protocols
A protocol is just a fancy name for a method of communication between two or more devices in a network.
Since a VPN is a private network, its protocols use different techniques to ensure a high level of security and encryption of messages during communication.
The two most important factors that are directly affected by a VPN protocol are security and speed. Not all protocols are equal. Some will give you better speed than others, while others provide better security.
Over the years, developers have created several different VPN protocols, some of which are almost obsolete today. We’ll go over all of the commercially available VPN protocols below:
PPTP (Point-to-Point-Tunneling Protocol)
PPTP is the oldest VPN protocol that was developed back in 1995 by Microsoft. The protocol was used for the intranet of companies as well as the internet for general users.
How secure is it?
PPTP is not secure at all. It is riddled with security vulnerabilities which is what led to the development of more reliable and secure protocols. In fact, NSA can easily monitor traffic over PPTP and breakthrough its built-in encryption.
How fast is it?
PPTP is actually quite fast, but this is largely a result of the weaker strength of encryption used by this protocol.
Activities where strong security can be overlooked and speed have more priority such as streaming.
L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol)
L2TP was jointly developed by Microsoft and Cisco. It was an upgrade over PPTP and addresses some of the inherent vulnerabilities in PPTP.
L2TP is usually implemented with IPSec, which takes care of the security and encryption of the protocol.
How secure is it?
L2TP is considerably more secure than PPTP, especially when it is combined with IPSec. However, since NSA had a role in the development of IPSec, it is suspected that government agencies can crack L2TP security without much trouble.
How fast is it?
L2TP is slower than PPTP and almost as fast as OpenVPN. It offers a good balance between security and speed, but we already have better protocols available that deliver better performance.
A good combination of security and speed. In the absence of IKEv2 and OpenVPN, L2TP can be your preferred VPN protocol.
SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol)
SSTP is another proprietary Microsoft developed protocol that was built into Windows Vista. The protocol isn’t that different from L2TP in terms of performance but is often considered more powerful as far as sidestepping firewalls are concerned.
HOW SECURE IS IT?
On the surface, SSTP is quite secure and uses AES encryption, which is one of the strongest encryption standards out there.
How fast is it?
SSTP is almost as fast as all modern VPN protocols.
Windows users that want to pass through restrictions imposed by a website’s firewalls.
IKEv2 is a protocol primarily developed for mobile internet communications (3G, 4G, LTE), and not specifically a VPN protocol. However, its success led to its adoption in VPN technology. This protocol was also jointly developed by Microsoft and Cisco.
HOW SECURE IS IT?
IKEv2 is considered very secure by experts. Like L2TP, it is also usually deployed with IPSec to take care of the security front. However, once again the NSA’s role in the development of IPSec leaves some room for suspicion.
HOW FAST IT IS?
IKEv2 is probably the fastest protocol that we currently have.
IKEv2 is excellent for mobile devices. The protocol is highly efficient at reconnecting to mobile data networks when interferences cause a drop in the connection (such as driving through a tunnel, poor weather conditions etc.)
The most trustworthy protocol out there is OpenVPN. It is the only widely used open-source protocol, which makes it transparent and auditable by third parties.
HOW SECURE IS IT?
OpenVPN is highly secure and can be configured to use many different standards of encryption, including AES. It uses the same security protocols which are used by HTTPS websites (OpenSSL), so there’s a lot of reasons to trust the security of this protocol.
HOW FAST IS IT?
OpenVPN is slower than PPTP, but still pretty fast. Considering the significantly improved security, it is a fair trade off even with the slightly slower speed.
OpenVPN is excellent for all sorts of purposes including streaming, torrenting, as well as general browsing with strong privacy and security.
WireGuard is a new VPN protocol that is still under development. The protocol promises to outperform existing protocols in every aspect including speed, security, ease of use, and auditability.
HOW SECURE IS IT?
Since the protocol is still under development, its security is far from foolproof. However, it will definitely offer significant improvements in terms of security when it is completely developed.
HOW FAST IS IT?
WireGuard was developed with the aim to be the most lightweight protocol around. It does away with most of the bloat that characterized protocols like OpenVPN and works on the Linux kernel to boost speed by almost 5 times as compared to OpenVPN.
When fully developed, WireGuard will be set to supplant OpenVPN and will see widespread use for all VPN related use cases.
Choosing a VPN Service
Now that you are familiar with how VPNs work in general and the different types of VPN protocols, you can make an informed decision choosing the right VPN for your needs.
However, the VPN industry is growing at an accelerated pace and there are a lot of VPN providers that you can find today by a simple Google search.
Nonetheless, it goes without saying that, with all the variety of VPN products in the market, finding an effective, reliable, affordable, and trustworthy VPN is almost like finding a needle in a haystack.
So, how do you make the right pick?
For starters, we strongly urge you to stay away from free VPN services. To understand why we don’t recommend these VPNs, see our article on free VPN providers. Here are a few differences between paid VPN services and free VPNs that are generally true in most cases:
|Premium VPNs||Free VPNs|
|Unlimited bandwidth.||Heavily restricted bandwidth.|
|Variety of server locations.||A handful of 10 or fewer servers in most cases.|
|Do not sell user data.||Often sell user data and log identifiable information.|
|Do not contain malware.||Often contain malware in their apps.|
|Offer multiple privacy-enhancing mechanisms.||Only offer basic protection at best.|
|Generally able to bypass firewalls and geo-restrictions.||Fail to bypass geo-restrictions in 99% of the cases.|
For these reasons, using free VPNs only invites more trouble and compromises your privacy in a way that you may not have anticipated.
The wise thing to do would be to stay away from these false offers and pick a trustworthy tool from available premium VPN providers.
This eliminates a significant portion of potential VPN providers from your list. But it still leaves a lot of premium ones to choose from.
Here is a list of the 5 best and highly reliable VPN services:
Online privacy is a continually dwindling element in the precarious world of today. So much so that the tools that were initially developed for corporate and government-level cybersecurity now see massive demand from the average consumer.
VPNs have been protecting users from all over the world experience online freedom and maintain their privacy from menaces such as government surveillance and data breaches.
This is what a VPN basically is: a protector of your online privacy that helps bypass needless restrictions and censorship so prevalent on the web today.
We hope you now understand what a VPN really is and how it can benefit you. If the present state of affairs of the internet is anything to go by, you can rest assured that VPNs will continue to be in demand and their importance will stay relevant in the times to come.