VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and there are many companies that offer VPN services. A great VPN service will not be free and will work to protect your data from scammers, your ISP, or anyone else with malicious intent towards your data through the use of encryption protocols and other methods.
Internet privacy is a hot topic, and for good reason. It is not acceptable for anyone to look through the windows of your house, so it should not be okay to look at your browsing history and collect your data. A great virtual private network (VPN) service can ensure that your personal data stays private.
Many people know that a VPN service promotes security and privacy, but what does that mean? Defining what a VPN is and how it works can seem intimidating to even the most tech-savvy person, but it’s actually quite simple.
What is a VPN?
Before going into what a VPN is and what its purpose is, let’s expand the acronyms. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, but people often use the abbreviated acronym VPN because it’s more publicly recognized and easier to say and write.
In short, a VPN is a service that protects your data, your Internet connection, and ultimately your online privacy by providing a private network connection that encrypts your online identity. With a VPN service enabled, your IP address changes and your virtual location is masked, protecting you from anyone who might maliciously use or sell your data, such as hackers on a public Wi-Fi network or even your Internet provider. Internet services (ISP) on your home network.
There are many things that go into hiding your identity online, including encrypted tunnels and VPN protocols, but more on that later. VPN services help you feel more secure when using public and private Wi-Fi networks, whether you’re shopping, answering emails, or working with sensitive data.
It is important to note that “free” VPN services do exist, but they are often mediocre and not as secure as paid VPN services. If you wanted to hire professional security services for your physical home, would you ever hire someone who offered their services for free? Probably not, and it would make you wonder how they are making any money if their services are offered to you for free.
A brief history of VPNs
For as long as we’ve been using the internet, there have been discussions about what happens to our private browsing data. Early in the VPN game, most services were created and offered to corporate companies. In recent years, the demand for personal VPNs has increased considerably as we have learned just how much our personal data is at risk on a regular old password protected home network.
In 1993, the Software IP Encryption Protocol (swIPe) emerged, providing network users with authentication and confidentiality capabilities. Then, in 1994, the Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) system built on that and created an Internet security protocol that encrypts and authenticates data packets shared on the Internet. While both swIPe and the IPsec system laid a great foundation for secure Internet use, neither hit the mark for what we consider to be the “first VPN service.”
The first true creation and use of VPN technology as we know it today was in 1996 by a Microsoft employee named Gurdeep Singh-Pall. He created a peer-to-peer tunneling protocol, PPTP for short, and used the tunneling encryption method we see today in modern VPNs. With Singh-Hall’s PPTP, remote Microsoft employees could securely access the company’s internal network from anywhere.
Once the success of this remote access protocol for Microsoft became clear, other companies began to adopt the same protocol. Personal VPNs didn’t really become a thing until 2010, when security breaches were more common among companies people trusted with their data. In recent years, many companies have enacted geographic access restrictions for content, such as Netflix or YouTube, inspiring people to take the leap and invest in a VPN service.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN gives people privacy while using the internet, but how exactly does it do it? The best analogy I’ve ever heard to explain how a VPN service works, in very basic terms, uses two things we’re all very familiar with: a road and cars. In this analogy, the internet is a highway and anyone using the internet is someone in a car on said highway.
No matter where you are on the road, anyone who chooses your car and decides to follow you can see you wherever you are and even follow you home if they want to. Now, imagine that right next to the highway, there is a private tunnel that you can take your car through. Only your car can go through this tunnel. No one can follow you and you are shielded from view.
VPN services act like your own private tunnel, hiding where you’re going, who you’re talking to, or what you’re doing while you have your VPN on. These private tunnels don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. The way you use the Internet and your computer will not change at all. The only difference between the highway (Internet) and the tunnel next to it (Internet with a VPN service enabled) is the ability for other people to see you.
Any device that uses the Internet has a unique IP address, which is similar to someone’s fingerprint. When you don’t have a VPN service activated and you visit a website with your IP address, it’s like touching a doorknob or glass and not wiping off your fingerprints. Many people wouldn’t maliciously “fingerprint,” but that’s not to say that other people wouldn’t.
By activating a VPN while using the Internet, you are simply eliminating that possibility. Instead of someone seeing your IP address, they will see the IP address of the VPN server, which is usually shared by many other people.
In more technical terms, this is what happens when you open your laptop in a coffee shop and turn on your VPN before going to work. After you send the request to connect to whatever VPN service you’re paying for, the service authenticates your client, which can be your laptop, smartphone, tablet, or any other device that accesses the Internet, and applies an encryption protocol to all your data. , along with a VPN tunnel for your data to pass through privately. Unless someone has the specific key to decrypt this data, any of your browsing data will look like complete gibberish to anyone trying to access it.
Every little packet of data goes through encapsulation, which is just a fancy way of saying that your data is encrypted and has an extra layer of armor surrounding it as it passes through the tunnel. Once your encrypted data reaches the VPN server, your data is decrypted and forwarded to the designated web server, or in other words, the website you are actively using on your device. When the web server responds with its own data packets, it is encrypted on its way to the VPN server and decrypted once it reaches your device.
For as long as you are using your device, any website you visit will see the IP address of the VPN server you are using and not the IP address of your device. That said, if someone were to look at your connection, they might see that you’re using a VPN server, but nothing else.
The most common VPN types
Everyone seems to have a different way of labeling the types of VPNs available, but here are the three most common categories: Remote Access VPN, Site-to-Site VPN, and Personal VPN.
Personal VPNs are aptly named as they are the most popular option for personal use. Also called consumer-grade VPNs or commercial VPNs, personal VPNs are what we’ve mainly been referring to in this article when we explain how a VPN works. These VPNs connect your device to a VPN server, encrypt your data, and hide your real IP address, displaying the VPN server’s IP address instead.
Remote access VPN services work much like personal VPNs in that they both hide their own unique IP address. With personal VPNs, the IP address displayed to anyone searching is the IP address of the VPN server. Remote access VPNs are typically used in work-from-home situations, and you connect remotely to your company’s internal network, displaying that IP address, and using the same network security measures as if you were there in person.
Site-to-site VPNs are used primarily by large corporations that often have multiple offices in various locations around the world. Like any other VPN, a site-to-site VPN uses private encrypted tunnels to send data back and forth between your many offices, with each office having its own local area network (LAN) and wide area network (WAN). . However, the tunnels are specific to that corporation’s many networks, making it easy to exchange data between offices while protecting the data of anyone not inside that network. This can also be called a router-to-router VPN service.
When researching VPNs, you may come across the terms Corporate VPN or Business VPN. Both terms are interchangeable and only indicate that the VPN service is for a business. Large corporations or smaller businesses often choose a remote access VPN, a site-to-site VPN, or both, depending on the needs of their workforce.
Should I have a VPN?
A VPN, just like a home security system, will give you protection and privacy. Is it absolutely necessary to have a VPN? No, but if you can afford the extra protection while you’re on your smartphone or laptop, why not prevent malicious attacks?
A home security system is also not necessary, but many people invest in one because they want to feel as safe as possible in their own home. With a VPN, you can use your device without having to worry about someone taking a look at your personal data. Plus, VPN services only cost $5-$10 per month, and you can often pay annually to bring that monthly average down a bit. In exchange for privacy at all times, $5 to $10 seems very affordable, especially if you spend a lot of time on public Wi-Fi networks.