What is a VPN and Why Is It So controversial?

Virtual private networks (VPNs) have a shady reputation due to their privacy benefits and their sketchy uses. Regardless, the best VPNs are incredibly safe, and they are standard tools that help you make the most of the web, all without doing anything illegal. Installing a VPN is not difficult at all and works out of the box most of the time.

Many people wouldn’t dream of using the internet without masking what they’re up to, especially with today’s profile harvesting, marketing techniques, and the sales of personal information. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a law in 2016, making VPNs illegal in the country because they circumvent their censorship control on internet usage. The laws in other countries vary, and many are up and down with legislation on the topic.

So, what is a VPN, and how does it work? How do you know if you should be using one, and is it worth paying to protect your privacy, or should you use a free one? Here’s everything you need to know before you start using a VPN.

What is a VPN?

At their most simple operation, VPNs allow you to hide your IP address (the code that uniquely identifies your web connection). VPNs protect your privacy, identity, and location by transferring your IP to a private network that connects to the internet via an encrypted tunnel. These connections commonly get used for public Internet access, such as Wi-Fi hotspots or even a router at a local restaurant.

In particular, VPNs are handy for circumventing region-locked content, such as watching Netflix that you are used to while traveling in the UK, or watching BBC iPlayer within the US. Many companies are now savvy enough to block against known VPN addresses if their use promotes illegal activity or infringes upon regional viewing rights. Vudu is just one example.

More technically, a VPN is a network of computers securely connected via the internet. This network lets all its users connect and transfer data to one another without the prying eyes of would-be hackers and internet snoops.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN works by connecting two or more computers via a secure, encrypted connection across the internet. Paid-for VPN services, such as Buffered, can also mask your IP address, meaning you’re harder to track down versus if you use a free VPN such as CyberGhost.

The process of connecting to a VPN is incredibly simple. First, connect to the internet via your ISP, and then initiate a VPN by using a third-party client. You can find a complete rundown on Wikipedia, but the most common is a Secure Shell (SSH) connection.

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Virtual Private Network overview by Ludovic Ferre licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is a proxy?

VPNs are often discussed alongside proxies, and they have similar uses. While a VPN typically gets used to protect data in a secured “tunnel,” a proxy routes the data through another networked device, such as a remote server. This connection makes it appear as if the traffic is coming from the server, rather than the individual, giving them a different layer of anonymity. However, while a VPN will conceal who you are, where you are, and what websites you’ve visited, proxies only handle the first two.

To put it more simply, VPNs protect the data, and proxies safeguard the user.

Common Uses for VPNs

1. Public Wi-Fi: If you use a VPN on an unprotected Wi-Fi connection (restaurants, airports, hotels, medical offices, etc.), your data is automatically encrypted. It’s reasonably safe to log into banking apps and medical sites, as well as shop online.

2. Online shopping: Shops that encrypt and protect your information are typically labeled ‘https’ in the address bar and have a lock symbol. However, some online shops leave you exposed, while other sites, such as those set up by hackers, can look legitimate even if they’re not. Browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox convert unsecured webpages to secured ones whenever possible. There are also third-party apps like HTTPS Everywhere that make insecure pages secured. Regardless, using a VPN will guarantee your data is safe if you happen to visit a risky site.

3. Protection against snooping: Using a VPN can safeguard you against hackers and service provider monitoring. If you visit a torrent site or download movies illegally from a website, you bet your internet service provider (ISP) is watching you, and you could get a letter in the mail as a warning. You may also have hackers on your tracks, monitoring your browsing activity, and stealing personal information to sell on the black market.

5. Net neutrality: No matter what current federal net neutrality laws are active, if any, ISPs may be able to throttle web speed and cap streaming services, which is currently possible. Sadly, they can also accept lump sums from certain third-party or web providers (Facebook and not Twitter, for example) to prioritize the paying company’s sites and services over the competition. Still, most ISPs are holding out due to ever-changing and controversial legislation and state court actions. All scenarios can get bypassed using a VPN (if unblocked) that reports your location elsewhere.

6. Removing geo-blocks: A VPN can circumvent local restrictions by hiding the user’s real IP address and substituting it with the ‘local’ address.

When should I use a VPN?

Every company should be using a VPN and home users that also feel the need to protect personal data when browsing the web from their smartphone or computer. Some routers allow you to set up a VPN directly on your entire network, meaning that all devices are secured, saving you from initiating a VPN on every phone, tablet, or PC.

Some individuals use VPNs because they don’t want their online activities tracked, but do it for illegal purposes. VPNs let users carry out nefarious online activities without being traced. For the most part, people primarily use it for identity protection and watching region-restricted content.

Types of VPN

As the name suggests, remote-access VPNs let individual users establish secure connections on a remote computer network. The users don’t need to plug into specific network servers. Companies with remote workers, or people who travel a lot, often use remote-access VPNs.

By contrast, a site-to-site VPN lets offices in various locations establish secure connections with each other over a public network. Intranet sites (spelled correctly) that get accessed outside the office are one example of site-to-site VPN uses. Alternatively, if a company has links with external firms, such as suppliers, an extranet (also spelled correctly) VPN connection will let them work together in a secure, shared network while preventing access to their separate intranets.

Free VPN versus paid

VPNs come in two flavors: paid and free. Free VPNs may sound ideal for one-time usage to view inaccessible content, but paid VPN services certainly outweigh free VPN clients.

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VPNs cost money to run, so alarm bells should be ringing when you see a VPN offering free service unless they have a healthy supply of ad revenue. Not only are free services inherently slower, less secure, and typically fail to mask your IP address, but they also carry serious dangers such as harvesting your information or hijacking your internet bandwidth and IP address. Using your own computer’s address, these free VPNs can allow other users to perform illegal activities while using your location. However, some free VPNs are legitimate.

However, a paid VPN offers more security along with the promise not to sell your information or use your bandwidth for others. The third-party utilizes your subscription to pay for its services instead. You’ll also find that your connection runs faster, doesn’t drop out frequently, and your IP address gets masked. Paid services don’t cost that much either, starting as low as $2 per month during a promotion. Regularly, pricing starts at around $4-$6 per month (or paid yearly or as a 2-5 year package).

Where can I get a VPN?

iOS Store ExpressVPN

Searching for “best VPN” or “VPN downloads,” or any search that contains “VPN,” always brings up a slew of ad-supported VPN download links. You should not click on those when looking to download a VPN. Your best bet is to go directly to a trusted client or download source. Google Play and the iOS App Store both offer a wide selection of free and paid VPN clients for mobile devices. We also have a list of the best VPNs to help guide you.

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