What Is a VPN?

If you are worried about your ISP canceling your services after torrenting a movie, or you need to access geo-restricted sites, a VPN may provide a safe and effective solution.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) establishes a secure connection between computers or servers. In most cases, consumers use VPN services to be anonymous when using the Internet.

No matter how you use it, you should take the time to understand how it works. Here is what you should know about VPNs.

What Does a VPN Do?

A VPN connects two computers or servers through a secure data tunnel. For the typical user, this means connecting a computer or mobile device on your local network to a server managed by a VPN provider. Without a VPN, your Internet traffic is visible to everyone, including the websites that you visit and your Internet Service Provider (ISP). With a VPN, the traffic routes through the secure server.

When you type a URL into your browser, the request goes through the secure connection to the server, which then connects to the site you want to visit.

Explanation of how a VPN works

Because your IP is masked, anyone monitoring the site’s traffic sees the IP address of the VPN server, and not yours. The same goes to your ISP, they can only see that you have visited the IP address of the VPN server.

By masking your IP, you can browse the Internet anonymously. From that moment on, you can use the Internet without your ISP tracking every site that you visit or file you download.

Besides changing your IP address, a VPN also provides enhanced security. VPN providers use encryption for the communication between your computer and the VPN server. All traffic gets encrypted, allowing users to connect to private networks. Ironically, that is possible even through public networks, such as the WiFi hotspots at coffee shops and restaurants.

Main Uses of a VPN

Not long ago, the main consumers of VPN services were businesses. The objective was to create secure connections between business networks, in order to protect their data. And this is still happening, most companies rely on VPNs to encrypt their communications. But, over the years, VPN providers started marketing their services to the public.

Virtual Private Networks have become more than just a tool for secure access to a private network. Nowadays, the most common VPN uses include:

1. Accessing Geo-Restricted Content

Some countries block citizens from accessing certain sites. For example, China blocks sites like YouTube.

Some sites also use their own geo-restrictions. Netflix uses the geographical location of users to provide different sets of TV shows and movies. Some shows are only available on Netflix when you are in the right country.

VPN providers often manage servers located throughout the world, allowing you to connect to a server in a different country. Many VPN providers even let you select the country, giving you a way to access geo-restricted sites and content.

2. Downloading Torrent Files

The same protocols that help you browse the Internet anonymously also allow torrenting. Many users use VPN services to connect to peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, such as the networks used by torrent clients.

The seeders and leeches on the P2P network only see the IP address and country of the VPN server. The VPN also hides the P2P connection from your ISP, as your computer accesses it through the VPN.

3. Hiding your online activity from your ISP and other snoopers

This is actually why the VPN was created, to avoid that anyone monitors you and finds out about what you do online. Thanks to the encryption, everything related to your browsing or downloads looks like gibberish to anyone trying to spy on you. Only you know what you do online.

4. Remotely Accessing a Local Network

You can also access your home network while traveling, running errands, or at work. You can share files and play games just as you would when connected to your WiFi network at home.

Is Using a VPN Safe?

Using a VPN can offer a secure method for browsing the web, torrenting, communicating, and other online activities. But it’s important to keep in mind that VPNs are different and your security may depend on which VPN provider you choose. That’s why you should take a few things into consideration before making a move on a new VPN.

The Logging Issue

This is the main security threat in the VPN world. The problem is that some VPN services log user activity, eliminating the anonymity that users often seek. Most of those providers do that because they have to. In some countries, legislation requires VPN providers to store data logs containing user activity. These logs may contain:

  • Browsing activity
  • Download history
  • P2P usage
  • Devices used
  • Payment information
  • Contact details

If the VPN company is based in one of those countries, they have to comply with those laws. If requested, the VPN provider would need to hand over these logs to the necessary authority. That would allow others to see the sites that you have visited and the data you downloaded through the VPN.

Other VPNs Log User Data for Profit

Some VPN providers keep logs, not because they are located in strict locations, but because user logs are very valuable. This is a typical scenario with free VPNs. Such services advertise themselves as free of charge for the user, but in the end, they sell your activity to whoever pays. If you think about it, they have to make their money somehow, a VPN is expensive to maintain.

Usually, marketing agencies are willing to pay a good amount of money to know about your online activity. It’s easy to understand why, if they know what you like and what you search for, then they know exactly what advertisement to send you.

A VPN logging user data

But there are other entities trying to buy that type of information, and it can get tricky if your logs end up the wrong hands. This destroys the whole principle of anonymity, it’s not what a VPN should do. We do not believe selling logs is an honest thing to do and we advise you to stay away from VPN providers who do so.

A Word About Dropped Connections

A dropped connection is also dangerous and can give away the identity of a VPN user. Keep in mind that a VPN is a software, and like any other software, it may crash or simply stop working for a while. If you lose the VPN connection, even if only for a little bit, your ISP can suddenly see your activity. That is because while the VPN is not working, your real IP address is visible again and you lose the encryption.

That’s why you have to make sure that the VPN you choose has the features and tools to provide you with a safe and anonymous online experience, which takes us to the next chapter.

How To Make Sure a VPN is Safe?

To avoid these safety issues and concerns, always research the VPN service before signing up. Look for VPN providers with no-logging policies. These services typically set up shop in remote countries that do not have data retention laws. For example, NordVPN is located in Panama, not having to save or handle data to any entity. Another similar provider is ExpressVPN, located in the British Virgin islands, far away from strict monitoring laws.

Remember that it’s better to pay a couple of dollars per month and have a trusted service than using a free VPN that may compromise your identity.

Finally, a kill switch is a tool that helps increase the safety of using a VPN. A kill switch instantly terminates your connection if the VPN fails, keeping your activity and IP from getting exposed. Make sure that the VPN you’ll get has one. It’s easy to find out if a VPN provider offers this feature in their software. If they have it, they will mention it loud and clear on their website.

Is Using a VPN Legal?

VPNs are legal in most regions. In the United States, Canada, and most of Europe, you can safely use a VPN.

How legal is a VPN?

While VPNs are legal in most countries, some restrict their use whenever possible. This happens in authoritarian countries, where freedom of speech is very limited. In countries like North Korea, China, Turkey and parts of the Middle East, using these services may result in penalties or fines.

It is a good idea to find out if using a VPN is legal in your country before risking negative action from the government or your ISP.

When it comes to the legality of your actions, use common sense.
This should go without saying, but remember that a VPN does not turn an illegal activity into legal. What is illegal without a VPN is still illegal with a VPN.

Last Thoughts

While companies developed VPNs for connecting business networks, most people now use these services for hiding their online lives.

This software establishes a secure connection between your computer and servers located in other parts of the world. It gives you peace of mind when downloading, streaming, browsing, emailing, etc.

But always remember that online security is delicate and the wrong VPN provider could expose your personal data. A considerate amount of research should be done when getting a VPN.