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.
VPNs: A stop in the middle
A VPN is, at its simplest, a network that requires authentication before a user can access it; consider for example a campus or company network that requires a username and password. So how exactly does a VPN protect your data? By acting as a sort of launching pad for users before they access sites.
When a user connects to a VPN, a “tunnel” is created. This is a secure line of communication between the computer and the VPN, meaning outside observers cannot see the data passing between them. As an additional layer of security, the data passing through the tunnel is encrypted, altering the information in a particular way; for example, replacing every letter with the letter to the right, so that As become Bs, Bs become Cs, and so on (though modern encryption is much more complex). Both the user’s computer and the VPN know the key to the encryption, so when the data reaches its destination, it can be decrypted and returned to its original state.
This means that even if a hacker were to penetrate the tunnel, so to speak, they would struggle to read the data within. This secure tunnel blocks out more than just malicious outsiders, too. Even an ISP will only be able to see the unintelligible strings of data.
Once you connect to a VPN, you can browse the internet as usual, with one major exception: Your computer behaves as if it is located in the network, rather than wherever you are. This means that when you access a site while logged into a VPN, the data packets sent will not have your own address on them, but instead that of the VPN.
A way around geoblocking
VPNs are a useful security measure, but they also serve another purpose. Because your computer, while logged into a VPN, acts as if it is part of the network, you can log into VPNs in other countries to get around “geoblocking,” the act of blocking access to a site based on where a user lives. Examples of this range from the mundane — Netflix only allowing users in the United States to view certain content — to the oppressive — some countries banning their users from accessing certain sites.
For an example of how one can use VPNs to circumvent geo-blocking, imagine a user in Iran who wants to watch videos on YouTube. If this user were to log into a VPN based in the United States and access YouTube, the site and anyone observing their activity will recognize them as being in the United States, where the VPN is located.
How to start using a VPN
Knowing a bit more about how VPNs work, the question arises: how does one get started using them? Despite everything that goes into making a VPN work (tunnels, encryption, etc.) for you it’s as simple as logging in — meaning you’ll need the right credentials. As mentioned earlier, campus and office networks are examples of VPNs, and they’re fine if you are simply looking for a secure connection to the internet. If you are trying protect your privacy, however, using your employer’s network might not be the best idea.
It’s possible to use a private VPN service, which can be useful if you spend a lot of time on public Wi-Fi networks. For most people, the easiest way to get onto a VPN is to sign up with a VPN provider. There are hundreds of privately owned services, and as with any service they offer various incentives like lower prices or faster speeds. Typically, a VPN membership will cost a monthly fee. In making an account with a VPN service, you will create a username and password that you can use to access the network.
Whether you log onto your office network or a VPN service, you will need that network’s specific software in order to connect. If you decide to make an account with NordVPN, for example, you will need to download that service’s software. Thankfully, that is usually all there is to it. Simply open whatever software the VPN uses, enter your credentials, and log in.
If you do decide to make an account with a VPN service, it is important to do your research. Ideally, a VPN service will protect your privacy, but because VPN companies operate in many countries, standards vary wildly. There are some things to consider when choosing a VPN.
Are they free? Businesses have to make money somehow (those servers don’t pay for themselves). If a VPN service is offering itself for free, they’re making money off you somehow, perhaps by selling your information to advertisers. With privacy, as with anything, you get what you pay for.
Read what others think about them. Online communities like /r/VPN are good resources on the topic. Read what other users are saying before trusting a VPN.
The hazards of using a VPN
VPNs can be very useful, but they are not without drawbacks. The most immediate problem with VPNs is that they can throttle your download speeds. Remember that data passing between the user and the VPN is encrypted, which takes time. The data must also then be decrypted upon reaching its destination. If you are trying to download a game, for example, the bits of data will be encrypted and sent down the tunnel. When they reach you, your computer must then decrypt them, and depending how much data there is, this can take noticeably more time. The speed can also be impacted by how far away the VPN servers are from you. As such, try to avoid connecting to a VPN when playing games or doing any other activities that encourage a fast connection.
An additional problem with VPNs is that some larger websites have decided to crack down on them. Netflix is probably the greatest example. In order to keep foreign users from accessing its U.S. library, Netflix routinely blocks users if it detects they are coming from a VPN. This does not only apply to people trying to get around geoblocking; if you live in the United States and try to access Netflix through a VPN, the site may detect it and block access.
VPNs are a great option for anyone looking to protect their privacy online. They are not foolproof, however, so take care when using one. Be aware of your country’s surveillance laws, and the privacy policies of any VPN you use.
Updated on 3/30/17 by Nick Hastings to reflect Congress’ decision to repeal internet privacy regulations.
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