How does VPN work?

Before we dive straight into the inner workings of a VPN, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the basics of what a VPN is and what it does.

The acronym VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. As the name implies, it provides users with a virtual network that is private so that they can connect to the internet in a way that is safe and secure. Essentially, the ultimate goal of a VPN is to keep your private information private.

We highly recommend you read this article for a more in-depth explanation of a what a VPN is before you read this one, but here’s a short primer in any case.

But how exactly does a VPN do that?

What does a VPN do for you?

Most people will probably agree that the basic tenets of a VPN are a good thing. Here at Namecheap, we think that internet privacy is more than just a good thing – it’s vital to the success of the online world. That said, many people delay getting a VPN, considering it inessential or, worse, unnecessary. They shouldn’t.

A good way of illustrating the necessity of a VPN is to show just how exposed you are when your internet connection is not encrypted.

How data is transferred with and without a VPN

From shopping and paying bills to banking, so many everyday acts are rapidly moving online. As a result, we’re transmitting very important information, such as credit card details and social security numbers, day in, day out.

By not using a VPN, you’re not quite shouting your most sensitive information from the rooftops, but it is a little like leaving your front door open with your personal information conveniently laid out on a table right inside the door. Maybe you have good, honest neighbors that won’t come in and take what is valuable. It’s natural to want to believe in the goodness of our neighbors. That said, there’s a likelihood that one or two of those neighbors will have a more malicious intent. And even if there isn’t, do you really want to take that risk by not closing your door and locking it tight?

Think of the internet as a neighborhood, except instead of houses, there is a collection of servers. These servers store the internet’s countless websites and communicate with each other constantly and have access to your data as you browse the internet. You may not care about some of this data, but you should certainly be worried about more sensitive data like your online banking details.

You might think that HTTPS does the job, but it’s ok.

For the uninitiated, HTTPS secures information communicated between a person’s web browser and a website. It is indicated in green the browser address bar and also by a padlock icon. While this does indeed provide added security while web browsing, your data will still be vulnerable, particularly if you’re using public Wi-Fi. Going back to our house analogy, it’s a bit like closing your front door but failing to lock it. It’s better than keeping your front door open, sure, but security definitely could be tighter.

Whether you’re connected to the internet in public or at home, without a VPN you are exposed to a myriad of vulnerabilities. When you’re browsing at home, your ISP can see everything you do and is probably logging it. Places with public WiFi hotspots, such as coffee spots and airports, are very vulnerable to hackers who can easily set up fake but convincing hotspots.

On the other hand, when you use a VPN, your data is not exposed. The origin of your data will be your VPN server. By using a VPN your online actions will not be tracked and logged by ISPs and unsavory hackers, nor will sensitive information be taken. Even if data is intercepted, it is encrypted, so it looks like nonsense to anyone without a decryption key.

Common reasons for using a VPN

People use VPNs for countless reasons. Some of these reasons are specific, while some people just have a VPN as another layer of security in addition to a good antivirus program and practicing generally sensible internet usage.

  • As previously mentioned, a common reason to use a VPN is to prevent anyone – from ISPs to public Wi-Fi hotspots-- from tracking what you’re doing online.

  • Another reason many like to use a VPN is to gain access to region-restricted content, whether that be a TV show on your country’s Netflix, or to get around a certain jurisdiction’s internet censorship laws.

Ultimately, why people use a VPN is to have greater anonymity online. In a day and age where revelations of public data being used in shady ways have become a daily occurrence, keeping private information private is more vital than ever.

How secure is a VPN really?

Like with any online software or service, the security of a VPN will be reliant on a number of factors. In the case of VPNs, these factors include:

  • The kind of technology the provider uses

  • The laws of your jurisdiction

Let’s start by taking a look at the different kinds of VPN protocols available right now.

VPN protocols

A VPN protocol is basically the technology your VPN service uses to ensure you get the fastest and safest possible connection to the internet. Combining encryption standards and transmission protocols, a VPN protocol determines how your data is transmitted between your device and the VPN server.

The main VPN protocols in use today are:

  • Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

    Created by Microsoft, this is one of the oldest protocols used on the internet today. As such, it’s only really useful if you are using it on an older Windows operating system, though it is fast and easy to deploy. However, if a VPN service offers just this, it isn’t recommended.

  • Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP/IPSec)

    This protocol is a combination of the previously mentioned PPTP and the L2F protocol by networking hardware company, Cisco Systems. It creates a more secure data tunnel than PPTP, but doesn’t actually have encryption or privacy capabilities. As such, it is often bundled with IPSec, which is a security protocol.

  • Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)

    Another VPN created by Microsoft, this is the VPN equivalent of the protocols used by websites for encryption purposes. A very secure protocol, only the two parties involved in the transmission of data can decode it.

  • Internet Key Exchange, version 2 (IKEv2)

    A newer, more secure version of L2TP, IKEv2 was also born from a collaboration between Microsoft and Cisco. Like it’s predecessor, it is often bundled with IPSec. This protocol is particularly effective on mobile devices.

  • OpenVPN

    OpenVPN is an open source VPN technology and is widely seen as the best around. Don’t let the term “open source” put you off, all that means is that countless developers are constantly improving the technology, and anyone can use it and modify it to their needs, whether that be individuals or companies. Its effectiveness has been put to the test numerous time through high-profile audits. OpenVPN is one of the most popular protocols and is considered the most secure, offering the same protection as the previously mentioned protocols, but on a greater scale.

Before deciding on what VPN provider to go for, it’s a good idea to see what protocols they offer and if they suit what you will be using your VPN for.

The law and VPNS

The security of your VPN may very well depend on the laws of country you’re residing in, or the laws of the country where your VPN’s server and company headquarters are located. This is because the laws of a particular country will affect how you are allowed to use VPN technology and how different companies are permitted to use VPN technology.

Because the laws surrounding VPN usage are still somewhat new and still evolving, they can be interpreted in innumerable ways. If you are located in North America and western Europe, VPN use is generally permitted. VPN usage is a somewhat gray area in many countries, such as China, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia. While VPN use is not outright illegal in some of these countries, VPN use is restricted.

For instance, in China, it is illegal for businesses to use a VPN without a license and it is illegal for businesses to offer VPNs without a license. In Russia and Iran, only government-approved VPNs are allowed to be used. In United Arab Emirates if you are found to have fraudulent IP address you could be fined or jailed. VPN use is banned completely in Belarus, North Korea, Iraq, and Turkmenistan.

If you reside in a country where the law around VPN use is unclear, even if you’re not necessarily accessing content that is frowned upon or illegal, the act of using a VPN in itself could get you into a lot of trouble.

Depending on the country a VPN provider is located in, the company may be legally required to keep logs of your internet usage. They may also keep a record of your payments. This means that even though you have been using a VPN, your data is still being stored and could even be used for reasons you did not approve of later on.

Avoid this by always reading the fine print in your VPN’s Terms of Service. A VPN may wax lyrical about providing you with the ultimate secure internet browsing experience, but it’s better to be certain than to go just by their word.

As well as that, a good rule of thumb is to opt for a paid VPN rather than a free option. While many free VPNs can change your geolocation, few offer proper data encryption and data logging is common, with companies often selling your data to third parties.

Key considerations before choosing a VPN

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of how a VPN works. Before we send you on your merry way, here’s a checklist of things to look out for before you choose a VPN:

  • Is it free or paid? - When it comes to a secure, speedy service, it really is worth it to pay for a VPN. Many free VPNs tend to offer only the PPTP protocol which, as we said earlier, really isn’t very effective these days. They have fewer server locations and less bandwidth to offer. Very often with these free options your data is tracked and sold to third-party businesses. Paid VPN options more often than not have more powerful security protocols on offer than their free counterparts. A good paid VPN should have more server locations and more bandwidth, providing you with a faster service. They will also have customer support on hand if you run into any issues.

  • Are VPNs legal in your jurisdiction?

  • Where is the VPN server located?

  • Does the company log your activity?

  • Does it protect your whole device or is it just an add-on?

  • What are the protocols of the VPN’s encryption mechanism?

  • The number of servers and amount of bandwidth a VPN service has – if both are low it could make for a very slow web-surfing experience.

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