Unless you're living under a rock for the past 10 years or so, you'll know that VPN stands for the “virtual private network.”
It is a service that lets you access any website over the web, from anywhere, securely by routing your data and keeping the connection private.
A secure tunnel is formed between you and your destination, and data is encrypted by the VPN server to ensure your privacy.
But most people's knowledge about VPNs ends right here.
I mean they obviously know what a VPN is: but don't know how a VPN works, its different uses (except using it to access p*rn sites), and on which devices they can use it.
So, if there's a geek within you, keep reading.
Actually, there are two classes of virtual private networks (VPNs): Network-based and Client-based.
- In network-based VPNs, two different networks are connected to have a private network between them. For example, connecting two branches or offices of the same company or different companies over the public internet.
- In client-based VPNs, a user with a laptop or smartphone can connect to its private office network, or a website, for resource-sharing regardless of its physical location. This second type of VPNs is more commonly used.
That being said, these are not the only scenarios where a VPN can be used.
In fact, dedicated leased lines from the ISP to local sites were used to connect between the sites, in the past. VPN technology has advantages over the traditional leased lines like bandwidth utilization, encryption, cost efficiency, etc.
How A VPN Works
The usual process of how a VPN works (from a user's point-of-view) goes something like this:
You start a VPN software/app from a VPN service and connect through one of their available servers (which are located in different places around the globe).
That service, then, creates a secure tunnel between your device and your destination, and your IP address is replaced by the one given by that VPN service.
After this, your requested data is processed from the VPN server on your behalf. Since all the traffic passing through the VPN server is encrypted, no one can decipher it - even if they manage to intercept it somehow.
The above picture rightfully illustrates how a VPN works, but watch out the following video for further explanation.
Are VPNs Entirely Legit?
VPNs are legal in most of the countries around the world. In regions like the Americas and Western Europe, there's no restriction on the usage of VPN services.
The important thing for you to note here, however, is that what matters most is your physical location, not the location of the service/website you're trying to access.
The countries where 3rd-party VPN usage is generally discouraged, include China, North Korea, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, and Iran.
Do VPNs Make Us Really Anonymous?
No, a VPN cannot make you completely anonymous.
Just think about how much cyber-crimes will be increased if anyone becomes completely anonymous only by using a VPN.
VPN is just a secure tunnel from your PC to your requested website. Although this tunnel is tough to be hacked, you can be tracked with some effort.
It actually depends upon your VPN service provider because many of them have your data and if they share your information and data with any law enforcement agency, you can be tracked back very quickly.
If you want to be truly anonymous, you need to use the VPN that does not record your online activities in their server, and those are usually paid VPNs.
Who Wants To Steal Your Online Data?
Many of us think that it's only the hackers or "bad people" who want to have a sneak peek on our online data even though they're just one part of the equation.
Large tech corporations take your data and sell it to advertisers. These advertisers, then, classify your profile into different consumer sections and then send you targeted ads about their product/services.
Social media sites may take footprints of your online activity (the links you click on, the media you share/like, and how much time you spend on their sites, etc.) to improve website design or implement new features to keep users engaged.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. From insurance companies to Big data scientists to actual governments, there's a lot of people looking for your data.
Different Uses Of A VPN
Although you can do many things with a VPN (from buying cheap flight tickets to improving ping during online gaming), below are some of the primary uses.
Bypassing Regional Restrictions
Worldwide Web gives us access to an unlimited amount of data that is located on the internet, but some private/governmental organizations block different websites within their jurisdiction for various reasons (such as social media sites, p*rn sites, etc.).
VPN is a secure method to access those sites.
Keep Yourself Anonymous
First off, there are many ways through which you keep yourself anonymous - apart from a VPN.
You can switch to an anonymous OS (like RoboLinux), use Tor browser, hide your IP address, or even relocate to a country that values the online privacy of its citizens.
That being said, VPNs offer anonymity for the most part while not having you sacrificing your favorite browser, your beloved OS, or your native country.
Prevent Dynamic Prices on Different Services
Whenever you shop on the web, online retailers collect data information from you. This information generally includes, but is not limited to, the device you're using, your current browser, your IP address, your device' OS, and your IP location.
Based on these parameters, online retailers may show different prices to different user segments, for the same service/product.
So, for example, if your IP location shows that you belong to a prosperous neighborhood with a higher income than your city/state's average, a retailer might ask you more for the same product.
Despite being dubious, this tactic by online stores is not entirely illegal. Even airlines and hotels have been alleged with these charges.
On the other hand, since a VPN allows you to have IP addresses form different locations, you can actually verify if dynamic pricing is happening at all, and have the lowest price for that product if that is the case.
Connect securely on a public Wi-Fi
Until a few years ago, Public Wi-Fi networks were few and far between, even in some developed countries.
But now, thanks to ever-advancement in technologies around us, there's a significant influx of public Wi-Fi booths in recent times - all over the world.
But amid all this talk of free Wi-Fi, people tend to forget that anyone can connect to these networks, including hackers. And since traffic is not encrypted on these networks, there's a potential disaster in waiting.
VPNs are a perfect solution to this problem. Since they encrypt everything you do online, there's no risk as far as privacy is concerned.
Things To Look For In A VPN
After realizing the need for a VPN, the more wise decision is to choose one that can meet your requirements in the best way.
There are a lot of service providers in the market, and they all offer more or less the same features. To make your job a little easier, here are some of the most important things you need to look for in a VPN service.
This is one of the most essential features a VPN should have.
Even with all the technological advancements, the internet is still a network where many big servers are connected with each other through cables.
These servers are spread on different locations, and this is server location comes in.
If you're living in Australia, for example, and want to stream content from India, then connecting to a VPN server in Singapore will provide faster speed than what a VPN server in the UK can.
This is the reason why Paid VPNs provide you with a LOT of server locations.
So that you can connect with the one that is most suitable to your physical location.
Free VPNs, on the other hand, provide you a minimal number of locations. I have used the free version of the Zenmate VPN, and it comes with only 4 server locations (US, Germany, Hong Kong, and Romania).
Having a large number of servers available is vital because a VPN server too far from your physical location will harm your internet connection speed.
Many people claim that VPNs (especially free ones) slow down their Internet speed.
It is partially true but also depends on many other factors.
When you are talking about the slow VPN speed of the internet, you should consider the following parameters.
- VPN Server Bandwidth Limitations
- Type of Encryption technologies (more on that later)
- The Location of the VPN Server (as we discussed above)
- Firewall Interference
- Your Network Setup
- Routing Algorithms used in VPN
On the other hand, many people have reported that their internet connection speed was actually improved after having a Paid VPN.
Again, it depends on a lot of factors, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
Privacy And Logging
Although VPN service providers give you security and privacy over the whole internet, they do not make you fully anonymous.
Most of them keep the logs which affect your privacy and anonymity level. The records a VPN service provider keeps, include thing like:
- Information about user activity
- IP addresses that you are using
- Timestamps of the connection and disconnection to the VPN services
- Devices used in a VPN
- Payment logs
With these logs, the ISPs and government agencies can easily trace you.
Some VPN providers, on the other hand, have no logging policy and give you complete privacy for their payments and sales materials.
This is the reason why you should be very careful to read the policies of VPN providers before making any purchase.
Free VPN vs. paid VPN
So far, we've learned that the VPNs route your requested data through their servers to keep you anonymous.
But, as it happens with many things in the tech world, there's not one but many different methods to route that data between you, the VPN servers, and the actual data source.
These different methods are called VPN protocols, and each of them has their own pros and cons - in one way or another.
Introduced way back in 1995, Point-to-Point Tunnel Protocol is one of the oldest VPN protocols out there, and it was actually designed to work with dial-up connections in Windows 95.
Those dial-up connections were very basic in terms of speed. So, it was natural for devs to have speed as their main priority back then. As for compensations in the area of speed, some compromises were made in security.
Due to these compromises, this protocol is no longer considered secured by any means.
That being said, it is still useful in situations where internet speed is your top priority (like in web streaming).
L2TP was introduced as an upgrade to the PPTP and L2F protocols. Strangely enough, this protocol doesn't provide any security on its own, despite being an update.
Instead, it is paired with a security protocol called IPSec, which uses AES-256 encryption to provide the necessary security.
But despite being highly compatible and stable, and having no real problem, there are some basic downsides of this protocols, such as relatively slower speed, usage of pre-shared keys (so if the key is changed at one end, it has to be updated at the other end as well) and default usage of UDP 500 port for key exchange.
Another popular protocol in VPN tunneling is SSTP.
Being developed by Microsoft, it's available in every Windows OS since Vista SP1, but Mac, Linux, and Android OSes are supported too. That being said, the overall support is lower than other VPN protocols.
For authentication, SSTP uses 2048-bit SSL/TLS certificates while encryption is done via 256-bit SSL keys.
Moreover, it uses 443 port (the one which can bypass most of the firewalls out there) to connect to the server.
All in all, SSTP is more secure than PPTP and L2TP/IPsec but has some little downsides in the form slightly slower speed (due to high-level of security) and the fact that any 3rd-party can't audit it for vulnerabilities.
IKEV2 is another VPN protocol developed by Microsoft, along with Cisco. On its own, IKEV2 just provides a secure key exchange method. This is the reason why it's combined with IPSec security protocol, for encryption and authentication.
Since this protocol has a unique ability to reconnect quickly in case of a connection loss (due to the MOBIKE, a protocol which resists network changes) and network switching, it's quite commonly found in mobile-based VPNs.
Other than this, IKEV2 is known for multiple high-end ciphers, simple connection setup, and faster data transmission speed.
On the other hand, its downsides include UDP 500 port usage and limited cross-platform compatibility.
The last popular VPN protocol we're going to discuss is the OpenVPN.
One significant advantage it has over other protocols is its open-source nature, which means anyone can use it for his own purpose, or can contribute by removing any bug in its code.
This is the main reason why OpenVPN is very stable and secure, with no real flaw. For further security, it uses methods like AES 256-bit key encryption, with 2048-bit RSA authentication, and a 160-bit SHA1 hash algorithm.
In the past, OpenVPN was used to be criticized for its slower speed (due to added complexity by different encrypting algorithms), but recent versions have effectively negated this issue.
All in all, this is the best protocol you can have in a VPN. In fact, it's the default choice in many popular VPN services.
Quick Summary of VPN Protocols
For skimmers out there, here's the quick summary for all the protocols we discussed above.
- PPTP: Fast, widely implemented, but not secure. Only use for live streaming and basic web browsing.
- L2TP/IPsec: Commonly used protocol, but can be easily choked due to dependence on UDP 500 port.
- SSTP: Very good security but relatively slower speed.
- IKEv2: Mobile user-friendly, and suitable for temporary connection loss.
- OpenVPN: Open-source and offers the most robust encryption. Suitable for all activities.
IP Leaks & Kill Switches
If somehow, your VPN connection is dropped or stop working due to some reason, it may lead to your privacy broken.
A kill switch is a program or mechanism which is used to monitor the network status in case of insecure connection establishment.
Why use a kill-switch?
Sometimes, even most stable VPN services will have a tumbled connection. This is where this feature becomes useful.
Most of the users don’t need this type of feature or service in their VPN, but it is always good to have a feature for those who are not compromising about their privacy
Types of kill switch
- Application kill switch
- System kill switch
System kill switch
- The most simple and common kill-switch type.
- It will completely cut the internet connection from the computer.
Application kill switch
In this type of kill switch, you can close the specific application when the kill switch activates.
Common programs you may want to kill in case of a connection drop.
- Web browsing
- Torrent Client
Many users have reported that some VPN services, especially free ones, cause their internet to slow down. This is mainly due to bandwidth restriction which usually throttles/downgrades your internet speed for a specific type of traffic, but can sometimes slow down your internet as a whole.
Paid VPNs don't have this problem - in most cases - because each user is allocated its bandwidth separately, but it's good to do research before purchasing any paid VPN.
VPN And Ads/Pop-ups
Online Ads and pop-ups are a big threat to the security and privacy of a user.
Whether you are doing basic web browsing, streaming live matches, or downloading some content, you often look at the advertisements not so suitable for you.
These advertisements might have been placed on these websites by the third party to increase the traffic to their own websites, but many times, these ads include hidden malware, viruses, and ransom-ware to leak your privacy and security.
Several VPN providers also provide an ad-blocker service.
A VPN ad-blocker service can be implemented in three different ways: in the browser, in the VPN server, and in the VPN client software. These VPN blockers aim to prevent these unnecessary ads and pop-ups and ensure your privacy and confidentiality during your routine works.
How Many Concurrent Connections Are Allowed?
Most of us have more than one device to take of, these days. This is why there's no point getting a VPN which only allows one/two concurrent connections because you can't secure all of your devices in this scenario.
Below are some VPN that provide multiple simultaneous connections.
NORDVPN: Provides as many as six concurrent connections on different devices.
IPVANISH: Provides five simultaneous connections.
CYBERGHOSTVPN: Provides up to five concurrent connections.
If you are unable to find a VPN provider to cover all of your home devices, there's another solution in the form of a VPN router. This way, you can have limitless connections to your home devices, but it requires some technical background in computer networking (more on this later).
VPN And Torrenting
Torrents are just the files that contain the information related to other files and folders that are distributed across the computers. For example, if you want to download a movie using torrent, then a torrent gets you to know about the files and folders containing the film itself.
Hence torrenting is a process of sharing files among computers by using point to point connections. The computers in this process are connected in a point to point fashion just like an ad-hoc network, but a complex one.
As for as the legality of the torrent is concerned, it depends upon the scenarios whether whatever you are performing activities on the torrent is under law or outside the boundary of legal policies.
Inherently, using torrent is legal as long as you have not violated the legal actions.
Downloading the copyrighted material is an illegal activity, and due to that, the torrent has a bad reputation. In some countries due to these activities, using torrent to download anything (whether it is legal or illegal material) is completely banned.
And for that purpose, the Governments, Agencies, and ISPs put radar on you at all times and observing your activities.
Moreover, when you connect your computer for the P2P file sharing, the torrent protocol generates hundreds and thousands of user nodes which gives an obvious path for the intruders to gain access to the sensitive information.
In all these problems, choosing a reliable VPN while torrenting is the best solution.
It not only gives the anonymity to the user but also the data is transmitted in the encrypted form.
Before choosing a VPN that best suits your requirements you have to check out the policies of the VPN service providers in terms of the following factors:
- The speed of the data transmission a VPN provider provides
- Has Logging policy or not.
- P2P file sharing allowed on the network or not.
VPN vs. Proxy
Most people wrongly think VPN and proxy to be the same thing because they have many things in common.
But what many don't know is that they equally have some big differences.
Since we've already talked so much about the VPNs, we'll skip that part and jump straight on the proxy.
In simple words, a proxy is a server that acts as an intermediary between your computer and the website you're trying to access. It hides your IP address, so when you access a website, that website sees the IP address of that server instead of your real IP.
Being completely free, proxies are a great alternative in situations where you only want to bypass regional restrictions, like streaming live football matches, etc.
On the other hand, unlike VPNs, proxies don't offer encryption of any type (as seen from the above picture), often have unstable connection, have less compatibility than VPNs, and the owner of that proxy server knows your actual IP address.
Also, there's a possibility that the data passing through a proxy server has tampered.
All in all, if security is your main concern, then proxies are a big no. In fact, many free VPNs are just plain proxies in disguise and don't provide any real data security/encryption.
This is the reason why Paid VPNs are your last resort when it comes to security over the web.
Which Devices Support VPNs?
At present, versatility is a common feature provided by all the VPN service providers. Each type of devices and almost every platform of the operating systems have the support of VPN technology.
In desktop computers, the popular operating systems that support VPN are Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. VPN client software is supported in all three OSes.
If you don't want to install these softwares, you can enable VPN extensions in the browsers. Many browsers support these VPN extensions like Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, etc.
The mobile devices that support VPN technology are:
- Android Phones
- Windows Phone 10/8
- iPhones/iPads (iOS Platform)
Gaming devices that support VPN are:
- Play station 4
- Xbox One
Even other non-conventional devices, such as media streamers, support VPNs.
On the other hand, the devices on which you cannot set up a VPN, include Smart TVs, Amazon Alexa/Echo Devices, and other 'smart' home appliances.
What you need in this scenario, is a VPN router.
What Is A VPN Router
A VPN router is just a typical WiFi router that has a VPN client software installed.
Since many pro gamers use VPNs for a lower ping, you can also install a VPN software in your gaming router.
After this, every device that connects to a VPN router will be protected by the VPN.
Why we use VPN Router?
- Flexibility: With a VPN router, you don’t need to set up a VPN software on every device. You just need to set up VPN on your router or router/modem gateway, and that's it.
- Compatibility: VPN router or Access point can give VPN service to any Wi-Fi enabled device, for example, a computer, mobile phones, tablets, smart TV, etc.
- Completely automotive: A VPN router will always connect with the Internet through VPN service. There is no need to connect with the VPN client on all your devices every time.
- Non-Native Devices Security: VPN routers can also secure the devices that don't support VPN, like Apple TV, PlayStation 3, etc.
This guide will help you in setting a VPN on your router.
In the end, I just want to say that, while choosing the VPN provider according to your needs, try to find out the ones which provides you free trial and money back guarantee so you can avoid spending money on the services which you don’t need.