In light of Congress’ recent vote to repeal internet privacy protections approved by the Federal Communications Commission during the final days of the Obama administration, many Americans are on the hunt for ways to prevent their digital data from being stolen and sold.
Under the rules outlined in the now-rejected protections, internet service providers were required to gain permission before collecting or sharing customers’ data, which includes web history, geolocation data, and app usage. Congress’ decision ensured that there will be no such regulations, and that these companies are free to do whatever they want with data collected from residents of the United States.
As a result, you may have seen the term “VPN” thrown around. Virtual private networks (VPNs) have become a popular tool in the fight for privacy, but many people don’t really know what they are, or how they work. Despite the complex network theory behind VPNs, they are actually remarkably simple to understand — and even easier to use.
A brief refresher on how the internet works
To understand what a VPN is and how it functions, it’s important to understand how the internet and networks in general work. When two or more devices — computers, phones, tablets, etc. — are able to interact with one another, this is a network. Machines interact by sending data back and forth. The internet is essentially just a worldwide network built out of various networks and devices worldwide.
When a user accesses a website from a computer or other device, data is exchanged. The user’s device sends out “packets,” which contain the address of the sender and the receiver, much like letters sent by mail. This is necessary in order to connect to a site, but it means that observers can read these packets and know who is visiting a particular site, and what they’re doing there.