Why use a VPN or Virtual Private Network?
That’s what we’ll discuss in this article.
You may have heard about some of the things people do with VPNs – some people use them for work, some use them to access streaming services they otherwise couldn’t, and some people use them to stop others from snooping on their privacy.
We’ll talk about all those things here, and give you an understanding of why you might want to use a VPN for security and privacy.
What is a VPN or Virtual Private Network?
A VPN is a Virtual Private Network.
It’s a way to create a secure, encrypted tunnel between your laptop, computer, or smartphone and the VPN provider.
It allows you to surf the web, and access other Internet services, with better security and privacy.
(But, it’s not fool proof, as we’ll discuss soon.)
How does a VPN provide this improved security?
By way of encryption.
Computer encryption is a mathematical concept that lets two computer devices communicate without letting any “middle men” in on the message.
The process uses the secure interchange of codes – that are used to both encrypt the information so it can’t be read – but ensures it can be un-encrypted by the intended recipient.
This way, nobody can spy in between.
And this is particularly important on the Internet.
That’s because the Internet is basically one giant, global network of cooperating networks.
And that means the information that you transmit or receive to your computer has to pass through many, many “hops”.
Some of these network hops are controlled by corporates, some by governments – and in some cases both!
Without encryption, any of these middlemen (that help pass the message from the source to the destination) would be able to see the contents of the message.
The other benefit of encryption is that it helps ensure the message hasn’t been tampered with in transit. If it was tampered with, the message would be corrupt, invalid.
Of course, all of this requires strong encryption which other’s can’t break – whether by brute force or by having back door keys for access.
So, when you read about VPNs you’ll hear about strong encryption, weak encryption, and so on.
The other big privacy boosting aspect of a VPN – it helps obscure your location or origin.
How does a VPN do this?
Earlier, we said that the Internet is really a big collection of cooperating networks – and they pass message (packets) from one network to another to ultimately deliver your message.
Your first “hop” when you open a website is that of your ISP – or Internet Service Provider.
After all, you can’t be on the Internet without an Internet provider.
And it’s no different on your smartphone – when you are browsing the web on your phone your cellular carrier (like AT&T, or Verizon) are effectively your ISP.
VPNs help conceal your location because they route your network traffic.
When the VPN software is installed and configured on your device, it ensures that your network packets are encrypted (so your ISP can’t read them) and also that the packets will go to the VPN provider’s servers, as one of the first hops.
I say “one of” the first hops because your ISP is ALWAYS technically the first hop.
But remember, the packets are encrypted – they can’t really see what you are doing (but they will know you are using some sort of VPN – more on that later.)
The VPN provider will re-package your packets to hide the true source, and then route the packet to the final destination – and the final destination and all the hops in between will only know that the traffic came from the VPN provider.
They won’t know where the packet came from.
But your VPN provider will – they have to – to be able to route the return packets back to you.
And so, a VPN is only as good as the provider.
You’re putting full trust in your VPN provider – because they technically will know what you are doing, and where you truly are.
With the technical details out of they way, let’s talk about some of the things you can do with a VPN.
Why do people use VPNs?
In this section, we’ll cover some of the common uses of VPNs.
These vary from the mundane, to the strange.
- To obscure your identity
- To ensure your ISP (or hackers) can’t snoop on your Internet usage
- To get around geographic (geo-blocking) gaming or streaming restrictions
- To provide a basic level of security and privacy on open Wifi networks
- To protect application traffic that is not normally encrypted
- Avoiding government censorship
- Avoiding location based price discrimination
- To bypass or avoid local firewall content restrictions
So, as you can see there are a variety of reasons to use a VPN.
Downsides of VPNs
At this point you are probably thinking – why don’t I just use a VPN all the time?
There are drawbacks that we’ll mention here.
First of all, a VPN requires a service provider. This provider must have servers, and software, and network connectivity in many parts of the globe.
And as such, VPN service isn’t free.
It is an additional expense on top of what you already pay your ISP for (Internet access).
Secondly, it’s an extra hop for your network traffic to go through – and it slows things down.
This can be quite dramatic, in fact.
So, for the ultimate in Internet speed – you probably want to avoid using a VPN.
You’ll probably face more “CAPTCHA” challenges when using VPN.
Why is this?
Because VPN helps obscure the source of traffic it is frequently used for hack attempts or password brute force guessing.
Remember that when you use VPN, you appear to be coming from an IP address that is shared with hundreds (or thousands) of other users.
Those CAPTCHA systems see the same origin IP from which password brute forcing is taking place – and make you jump through the extra CAPTCHA.
This is mildly annoying, but not debilitating.
Should I Use a VPN with my Smartphone or Tablet?
Yes, there’s really no difference between your smartphone or tablet and a desktop computer (or laptop).
They all work off the same networking principles – and if you are browsing the web or using other network services you can be prone to snooping.
Having said that – you need to understand that cellular phone conversations you have with your Android or iPhone (regular voice calls) will not be protected by a VPN.
The VPN software really only masks your Internet usage.
Voice (audio) calls on your phone are done via cellular radio networks – these are separate and different from the Internet capabilities on your phone.
It’s true that when you are surfing the web on your phone the “packets” are going over the cellular network.
But there is a different networking “stack” in use.
The VPN can be used to encrypt (and therefore conceal the contents of) the networking packets – so your cellular service provider can’t pinpoint what you are surfing or accessing.
But again, the voice call portion of your cellphone is a different beast – there’s not really a practical way for you to protect those conversations. There’s no way to practically mask who you are calling, or even your conversations.
Sorry, that’s just how it is.
Don’t like that? Then you shouldn’t be using a cell phone for voice calls.
VPNs are only as good as the Provider is
OK, so here’s a fact – not all VPN providers are equal.
The VPN provider “knows” what you are doing – they have to – to route your network traffic.
And they may be keeping logs – logs of what you connected to and when, etc.
And if these logs can be reviewed by government authorities – you may not truly be getting the privacy you think you are.
Some providers claim to have no logging, but then later have admitted some logging is in place.
Be very careful with which provider you trust with your VPN traffic.
Are VPNs illegal in the United States?
No, the use of a VPN is not illegal in the United States.
There are absolutely no restrictions on using this computer technology to protect your privacy and enhance your security.
VPNs are illegal in some other countries – such as China and Russia.
These countries have a very heavy handed policy towards censorship and surveillance – and so even attempting to use a VPN service in either of those countries could land you in trouble with the local law.
As a US citizen is it legal for you to use a VPN while traveling in those countries?
That’s a tricky question – which we can’t answer here.
I personally would recommend you get a VPN setup before travel – and make sure it is known to work in those countries.
Given that VPNs are illegal in China the government has already blocked most of the common VPN service providers.
Why Use a VPN – In Summary
There’s lots of reasons to use a VPN.
It can help protect your privacy, conceal your location or identity, and help secure legacy applications that don’t use encryption.
There are many more reasons too.
But, remember that your VPN is only as good as your provider.
If your provider keeps logs – and will hand them over to various agencies or governments – then it may not provide the anonymity and security you think you are getting.