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What Is a VPN and How Does It Work?

Person holding a tablet using a VPN

August 24, 2023

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. The basic principle is to establish a digital connection between your computer and a remote server somewhere else in the world. This creates a point-to-point tunnel with several benefits for you, including:

  • Encrypting your data.
  • Masking your IP address.
  • Allowing you to sidestep geo blocks and firewalls on the internet.

When you use a VPN, it makes it very difficult for third parties to track your online activities and steal your data. All encryption takes place in real time.

How does a VPN work?

As mentioned, a VPN lets the network redirect your IP address through a remote server run by the VPN host. This means that the VPN server is the source of your data when you connect to it and browse online. Your ISP and other third parties will be unable to see which websites you visit or track the data you send and receive online. It operates like a filter, encrypting your data so that, even if someone were to intercept it online, they would be unable to interpret it.

Why would I use a VPN service?

In a nutshell, a VPN disguises your data traffic and prevents third parties from accessing it. If your data is not encrypted, anyone who can access your network will be able to see it. A VPN blocks hackers and other cyber criminals from stealing your data.

Let’s look at some common reasons to use a VPN.

Work From Home

Remote work is more widespread than ever before. A VPN enables remote workers to access company systems via a private connection, no matter where they are. This allows you to fulfil your responsibilities with the peace of mind that company data is safe, even when using public WiFi.

Secure Your Data

We are constantly transmitting sensitive data online, whether it be:

  • Work emails.
  • Location tagging.
  • Payment information.

This information can be tracked, particularly when you use a network that others can access. A VPN scrambles all that data, making it unreadable to anyone that doesn’t have the encryption key. Effectively, this hides your browsing activity.

Bypass Censorship or Surveillance

Some regions are blocked from accessing certain sites or services. This can be due to censorship or surveillance. VPNs enable location spoofing, enabling users to circumvent blocks and firewalls and move freely online.

Access Regional Content from Anywhere

There are sites and services that restrict access to their content based on geographic location. A VPN tricks these geo-blockers into thinking you are in the location that has access to the content, even from a completely different country, so you can view that content from anywhere.

Prevent Yourself from Being Tracked

ISPs often log and track your browsing history via your IP address. This is data that could be sold off, divulged to the government or become vulnerable in a security compromise. A VPN server masks your IP address, preventing ISP tracking and maximising your browsing privacy.

What types of VPN connections are there?

The popularity of VPNs has led to a number of different options becoming available for both computers and mobile devices. Some are free, while others must be paid for, and they can be used for personal or professional purposes. Here are a few common types:

  • Remote Access VPN: These connect to a private network via SSL/TSL and are a good option for remote workers or anyone who wants to browse the public internet using an encrypted connection.
  • Site-to-site VPN: These private networks connect to other networks via LAN or WAN and are ideal for larger organisations that want to link internal networks across different locations with maximum security.
  • VPN Applications: for mobile users, these connect to private networks via an app on a mobile device to deliver the benefits of VPN use on-the-go.

A Closer Look at How VPNs Operate

There are various different protocol names, encryption types and routing methods used in VPN. When a connection is attempted to a remote server, it authenticates the request and creates an encrypted tunnel for data flow. Everything in this tunnel is scrambled and only the user and the server have the decryption key to make it accessible.

It takes a strong encryption protocol to guarantee safety, so look out for the following options:

  • OpenVPN.
  • SSTP.
  • IKEv2 / IPSec.
  • L2TP / IPSec.
  • PPTP.
  • WireGuard.

These are all tried-and-tested protocols with a good reputation for security.

How a VPN Protects Your IP Address

A VPN hides your identity by encrypting your data and masking your IP address. Upon connecting to the remote server, the VPN provides you with a new IP address, and this is often shared among users. The result is that individual activity becomes particularly difficult to trace.

This process can be based on server locations all around the globe. You will be able to adjust this in your VPN settings. The IP masking techniques also conceal your location, which is why VPN is great for bypassing geo-blocks and firewalls. It is also useful for protecting against doxing and DDoS attacks. If your IP address is untraceable, you are far less vulnerable to attacks.

How secure is a VPN?

It’s important to understand that, while a VPN functions as part of a robust cybersecurity solution, it does not entirely protect your computer from external intrusion. It is wise to use them in combination with other measures, such as antivirus software to protect against malware intrusions. Malware can still find its way onto your device through phishing scams and other methods, and the VPN will not be able to protect against data theft.

You must also choose a trustworthy VON provider. Your ISP may not be able to see your browsing traffic, but the VPN provider can. If they are not trustworthy, or they become compromised, your data is vulnerable. Do your research and choose a trusted VPN provider to ensure your internet activities are concealed and you have the best possible security.

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