What is a VPN and how does it work?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and describes a service that gives you online privacy by creating a private network from a public internet connection.
When you use the internet, data exchanges between your device and the servers that host the websites you access. This data can be tracked by your internet service provider and third parties within the network.
A VPN essentially creates a secure tunnel between your device and the internet which allows you to send data via an encrypted secure connection before arriving at the destination.
With that, you enjoy anonymity, safety, and freedom.
How does a VPN work?
VPN works by intercepting internet traffic for encryption. You need to first install VPN software on your device. This software is provided by your chosen VPN company.
Once you’ve installed it, you select a server you want to connect to and the VPN gets to work.
When you connect to the internet, the VPN software on your device encrypts your internet data and sends it to the VPN server through a secure connection. It passes through your internet service providers but due to the encryption, it maintains the privacy of your traffic because the ISP or third parties cannot derive any meaning from the data.
Upon receiving the data, the VPN server decrypts it, sends your data through the internet, and receives a reply for you. Any third party in the public network can track the data back to the VPN server, but not to you.
The VPN server encrypts the received data and sends it back to you through a secure connection. Again, the ISP cannot snoop due to the encryption.
Your VPN software finally decrypts the data so you can use it. That’s how a VPN works.
When you use a well-designed premium VPN service, you can hardly notice any difference with your internet connection as the application smoothly runs in the background.
What does a VPN do?
Now that you know what a VPN is, what does a VPN really do?
Most of its uses revolve around anonymity and freedom to access information. Depending on your need, you can gauge how beneficial a VPN is and potentially make it an integral part of your browsing experience.
1. It Gives You Anonymity
The internet is a web of interconnected computers.
Each of these devices has an Internet Protocol, IP address which is like an online version of your postal address that tells others who you are and your location.
As such, internet users and web entities can track your internet behavior and assign it to you.
A VPN gives you anonymity by hiding your IP address. It reroutes your traffic through an external server which acts as your source and thus breaks its connection with your IP address.
Therefore, you remain anonymous while browsing the internet and that’s how a VPN protects you online.
2. It Offers Data Traffic Protection
Any activity you undertake online can be accessed and recorded.
Cybercriminals can intercept your data and use it to hack into your system and online platforms. Meanwhile, governments always want to observe your online activities.
Without a VPN, you make it extremely easy for these parties to access your online activities.
A VPN uses strong encryption protocols to secure your data and make it virtually unreadable by interested eavesdroppers.
Your internet data will be secured from hackers and governments while internet service providers and corporations will easily track your data for monetization.
Hence, you significantly increase your online safety and privacy.
3. It Bypasses Internet Censorship
Governments are major curtailers of internet users’ freedom.
Numerous governments across the world have consistently censored the internet by blocking online platforms and media websites that are seen as threats to them.
According to Freedom House, 61% of internet users live in a country where criticism of the government is subject to censorship.
If you fall in this category, you can breathe a sigh of relief.
A VPN can help you circumvent censorship by allowing you to connect to a server in a non-censored country. Hence you can access the online platforms which have been censored in your country.
And courtesy of encryption, your internet activities will be secure.
4. It Bypasses Geographical Restrictions.
Have you ever tried accessing a website only to come across a landing page with these words?
This service is not available in your country.
Online companies sometimes restrict their services to certain geographical locations before they expand globally. If you’re in a left-out country, accessing these services with a normal connection is almost impossible.
A VPN can help you connect to the internet through servers located in a non-restricted country so you can enjoy the services as you please.
If you’re a global tourist who needs to access your home country’s streaming services, learning how a VPN works can save you a lot of trouble.
5. Secures Browsing in Public Wi-Fi Networks
As the internet takes center stage in more people’s lives, Businesses have resolved to establish public Wi-Fi networks in work areas to incentivize customers to stick around longer and spend more money.
Currently, there are more than half a billion Wi-Fi hotspots around the globe. However, according to a study by Kaspersky, 28% of public networks are unsecured and risky.
When you use a VPN to access a public Wi-Fi network, it encrypts your data which secures it from access by cybercriminals.
How a VPN connection works only allows a hacker to see the encrypted form of your data and hence make no meaning from it.
What does a VPN not do?
Besides answering what a VPN is and how it works, I’ll also tell you what it’s not.
VPNs have many perks. A simple search on Google on what a VPN is and its benefits will make you think they solve every security and privacy challenge there is.
But there are some limitations of VPNs I would like you to know. The last thing you want is to invest in a VPN only to realize later that it doesn’t work as you thought it would.
Here are some things that a VPN cannot do.
1. Protect you from Malware
By virtue of functionality, a VPN does not protect you from malicious software that cybercriminals use to infect devices. These malwares have all to do with your device’s hardware, software, and files and nothing to do with your internet connection.
Secondly, a VPN only hides your IP address and encrypts data between your device and the website. But it does not verify the data as good or malicious; It’s not how a VPN protects you.
To protect your device from malware, you need an antivirus that checks running codes against known malware patterns, isolates, and removes threats.
Device protection from viruses is not what a VPN is used for
2. Accord you 100% Anonymity
The only data that a VPN encrypts is shared between your device’s VPN software and the VPN server. While this gives you a certain degree of anonymity, it doesn’t make you magically disappear from the internet.
First, your internet service provider still has your personal data, payment information, and original IP address because you’re a customer.
Secondly, governments for instance Kazakhstan can intercept and decrypt data of internet users within their jurisdiction.
They can also force VPN services to share data with authorities such as In China before approving them.
Lastly, sites use browser fingerprinting to obtain valuable data such as operating system, screen size, and device time zone among other data which is instrumental in identifying an individual.
Lest you forget the 14 Eyes countries which have an agreement to monitor all internet traffic and share data.
Just assume you’ll not have 100% anonymity unless you use highly sophisticated internet protocols to hide your tracks.
3. Stop Cookies from Identifying you
Cookies are small files stored in your device that enable websites to offer a better user experience. A VPN on the other hand doesn’t control your files, it only secures your data during communication.
Hence a VPN cannot intercept cookies and store them on the server instead of your device.
In fact, some cookies can show websites your real location even if you’re using the VPN server’s IP address. Through this interference, your anonymity can be compromised.
To protect your privacy in this respect, ensure you clear your browser cookies before and after using the internet or alternatively, use incognito mode always.
4. Circumvent Internet Shutdowns
One of the weapons authoritarian governments use to subjugate citizens’ rights and freedom is by implementing internet shutdowns.
They force internet service providers to shut down their operations which disconnects a country from the web.
As of July 2021, there were over 8218 hours of internet shutdown costing the global economy over 3 billion according to Statista.
A VPN cannot bypass an internet shut down because of how a VPN connection works.
Why? Because it needs the internet service provider to connect with you to secure your internet activities. Using a VPN during an internet shutdown is like trying to write on a piece of paper without a pen.
5. Fully Bypass Firewalls
Many companies restrict internet usage in their company networks to prevent misuse. As a counter, workers use VPNs to anonymously bypass the firewall restrictions.
However, a company with highly skilled IT employees can catch you in the act.
For a start, if they monitor your internet activities closely, they’ll know if you’re using a VPN and take action. Secondly, if you use company devices, they can restrict the installation of programs without permission and your VPN will not even have a chance.
Lastly, using remote administration software, they can log into your device and observe your screen without you knowing.
What does a VPN really do?
By acting as your intermediary to the internet, they eliminate many privacy challenges for the average user. However, you need to do more to secure your privacy if it is of great importance to you.
Depending solely on VPN exposes you to loopholes caused by its inadequacies.In extreme cases, they cannot fully protect you from powerful forces such as governments.
Hence, you should understand what a VPN is used for; to improve your privacy, not in hiding online criminal activities.