How does a VPN work?

Podcasts and YouTube videos have been supported by advertisements for a vast array of different VPNs over the last year, but how exactly do they work and why might you want to pay another subscription, when you’re already shelling out hundreds per month for your internet, Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, and more?

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a private network that uses “virtual” connections routed through the internet and encrypts traffic to give users a more secure connection to sites and services. In the past VPNs were mostly for business use, with employees able to login to their company intranet over the open internet via an encrypted VPN connection, but today VPNs are used by millions of people around the world for privacy, security, and to get around regional restrictions.

Traditionally, when you connect to a website over your broadband connection provided by the likes of Sky or Virgin or mobile data connection from carriers like Vodafone or O2, those ISPs can “see” what sites you visit, when, and if the website is using http rather than https then what pages you are viewing and their content, as well as what services you use, from online games to Bitorrent. A VPN encrypts all this data so that your ISP cannot see what websites or platforms you use.

How do VPNs work?

A VPN creates a private “tunnel” from your device to the internet, encrypts your internet data, and masks your IP address and location.

By creating a “tunnel”, a VPN encrypts entire packets of data within other packets before they are transported over the internet. This outer packet protects the content of the inner packet from prying eyes, adding a layer of security to your connection.

When using a VPN, the websites you visit and platforms you use do not see the IP address tied to your connection or device, but instead will see the IP address associated with the VPN, which masks your identity providing some privacy protection against all the tracking that goes on online.

Why would I want a VPN?

Security and privacy are the most widely touted benefits of VPNs. The encryption and tunnelling do provide an added layer of security to your internet connection and most leading VPNs also provide a firewall that helps to prevent hackers and malware targeting you. And the IP masking will help protect your identity as it becomes very difficult for anyone to prove it was you that was accessing that services or visiting that websites without the help of the VPN provider, many of which hold no logs even if pushed to reveal them in court.

The IP masking provides an added benefit in that it not only hides your identity but can get around geographic restrictions. Most leading VPN providers have servers located in dozens of countries around the globe and you can choose the server you would like to connect through. For the best performance you should generally choose the server located nearest to your physical location, but there are numerous reasons you may want it to look like you are connecting from another country.

Geo-restrictions are common today, with streaming companies like Netflix or Amazon Prime offering vastly different libraries to people in different locations due to complex licensing agreements with film and TV distributors. If you live in the US then you already have the biggest and best libraries available to you and the best selection of streaming services, but for those of us that live elsewhere the choices are far more limited. VPNs are how to watch Disney+, Netflix, and other streaming services outside the countries in which these services have launched, but do note that these services are constantly playing catch-up and blocking VPN server IP addresses, so access is not always guaranteed.

Elsewhere online, digital service providers also often sell their tools and services for different prices in different countries. This makes sense in the sense that the average wage in places like India are around a quarter of those in the UK, but does make those paying higher prices feel cheated. However, often these firms only show prices based on IP address location, and so by connecting via an Indian or Turkish VPN server, you may get access to the lower price.

What should I look out for when choosing a VPN?

VPNs are all about trust and reliability, and so it is always best to choose a provider that has a strong track record and who have gone through the process of auditing their security and protections. Beyond that if you need to connect to servers from a specific location, such as India or the US, then make sure that your VPN has servers in those locations, and if they offer free trial then make sure the connections speeds from those locations are what you need.

Photograph by Petter Lagson on Unsplash

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