Have you been looking into security solutions and come across discussion about VPNs but don’t know what they are?
Or have you been trying to decide if you should use one?
Then you’ll love this article.
Because today, I’m going to answer common VPN questions.
- What is a VPN?
- How a VPN Works
- Do I need to use a VPN?
- Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?
- What is a good free VPN to use?
So, before we get too deep into this, let’s answer the question:
What is a VPN?
A VPN is a solution that allows secure communication by allowing a device to “tunnel” traffic over a public network like the internet. The virtual connection uses encryption tunneling to make the traffic unreadable by anyone who may intercept it. VPNs also allow remote devices to securely connect back to a businesses’ network.
To understand what a VPN actually is, you kind of first need to understand why it was created to begin with.
Back in the 90s as the internet boom was setting in, it was quickly realized that the internet was not safe at all.
That was obvious from the continuous string of breaches of national security computer systems.
Gurdeep Singh-Pall from Microsoft invented PPTP (Point to Point Tunneling Protocol) so that users could connect to the corporate network securely from home and other locations.
That was the original and most common use for VPNs – remote work.
Most businesses today have VPNs.
When personnel are on the road, or if they work from home, they can simply connect to the VPN, initiate a secure transmission session and work just as if they were actually on location.
As the technology began to evolve and other players created their own forms of the technology, it was realized that VPNs could also be used for obscuring the traffic source and destination to everyone but the VPN service provider.
And so began the use of VPNs for privacy and security.
How A VPN Works
In short, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) works by establishing an safe, encrypted communication stream with a VPN server to route network traffic over a public network like the internet. This encrypted tunnel hides the original source of the traffic.
So, let’s make sure you understand this well.
We’ll start by looking at how network traffic even works.
When you browse the internet, there are a ton of processes that are happening in the background that you probably have no idea are even going on.
All that traffic is made up of tiny packets.
A packet looks like this – kind of
So say you load a page on a website.
Dozens of those packets are sent to load that page.
Still with me?
As you can see in that image, there’s a problem with this.
If we can trace that message, does that mean a bad guy on your network could too?
They could intercept your traffic, read it, and send it on to the intended recipient.
When the traffic comes back, they do the same thing.
Everything you type, and the response –
They can see it.
Here’s where the VPN helps.
When a device sends network packets, the sender and receiver address are included like this:
As you can see, someone who intercepts the packet can still see who is sending and who is receiving.
To avoid this, a VPN encapsulates that entire packet with it’s own sender and receiver address – masking the original sender.
At the destination, the VPN encapsulation is removed and the packet is dealt with just like a regular packet.
We call this tunneling.
Let’s talk about tunneling briefly.
What is tunneling?
Tunneling is really just the concept of enclosing one type of packet in another to allow it to be sent through a medium that it normally couldn’t or couldn’t safely.
Basically, it’s add an additional encapsulation layer that engulfs the original packet.
The extra layer is applied when the packet leaves the original source and is removed at the final destination.
Everybody in between can only see the encapsulation data.
The tunneling concept is used in other applications besides VPNs.
For example, when IPv6 packets need to be sent over an IPv4 network, they are tunneled.
We call this IPv6 tunneling.
So, we can conclude that tunneling basically just means hiding a source packet inside of different packet headers.
Should I use a VPN?
You should use a VPN if you want to protect yourself from cyber criminals while using a public network, stop your ISP from collecting and selling your browsing data, securely connect remotely to your workplace network, or bypass oppressive internet restrictions. Perhaps, the most known reason for using a VPN is to gain anonymity online.
Let’s talk about each of these point in a little more detail.
Protect yourself from cyber criminals
So, probably the most widely recognized reason for using a VPN is to protect yourself from cyber criminals.
Say you go to a coffee shop (that’s just the example everyone uses), order a coffee with a friend, and sit down for a chat.
You need to discuss a business plan document that’s stored in One Drive.
What do you do?
You connect to the free WiFi and get right to work.
As we discussed earlier, the problem with this is that an attacker on the same network could potentially “sniff” all of your online traffic and capture secret information.
Things like usernames and passwords for sites, etc.
Based on our discussion of how a VPN works, you can see how it could benefit this situation.
If you connect to a VPN after connecting to the free Wifi, all your traffic will then be encapsulated with the VPN header.
Even if the attacker was able to get your traffic, they would get a garbled mess.
Stop your ISP from collecting and selling your data
The unfortunate truth about data privacy is this:
Many companies see the potential profit they can make from selling your data to advertisers and they are doing everything they can to get a hold of more of it.
Sadly, this includes your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
What’s even worse is that it’s perfectly legal.
Yes, approved by Congress.
The solution is to use a VPN.
As we have already stated, the VPN will encapsulate and encrypt your traffic so that your ISP can’t access it.
Note: Since ISPs can legally market your browsing data, you may want to give extra thought to using a VPN service that they provide.
Bypass oppressive internet restrictions
Here’s a basic explanation of how a firewall works:
A packet arrives from an inside seeking to go out – say to cyberx.tech.
The firewall looks at the packet, checks the source and the destination and runs it through a series of rules.
In this example, the packet is coming from the Local Area Network (LAN) address of 10.200.10.2 and is heading to say 184.108.40.206 which is www.facebook.com.
Since the firewall is blocking access to FaceBook, the packet fails the inspection and is rejected.
But here’s how a VPN would help get around this:
Because the client is communicating with the VPN address and not Facebook directly, the firewall doesn’t see anything wrong with it.
The firewall sees nothing offending about the packet and allows it through.
This is the reason people under oppressive regimes often use VPNs.
Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?
The short answer is yes you can still be tracked while using a VPN. While it may be much more difficult, there are other methods that can be employed to actually find your identity. Your VPN provider could be subpoenaed or hacked or you can get malware on your system that will reveal your true location.
So typically, when you use a VPN, the only entity that could actually track you or know your original IP address would be the VPN provider.
The problem is this:
It’s likely that the VPN service provider has logs of your traffic.
Some providers claim they don’t keep logs.
It’s up to you whether you choose to believe them.
When law enforcement comes knocking with a subpoena, the provider doesn’t want to go to jail over you…
Some ways to avoid this would if you live in an oppressive regime and need to would be to use an overseas VPN provider or one from a non-friendly country.
It is much less likely that they will cooperate with your country.
The other main way that your original IP address and identity could be found out was if you got malware on your system.
So, if you’re using a VPN, you should be VERY careful about what you do online.
You may should consider using a Chromebook to minimize the risk of getting malware.
What’s is a good free VPN?
You will pretty much always get better results with a paid VPN service. There are some decent free options that you may want to make use of.
We all like free stuff, right?
And if there’s a free option, we usually choose it over the paid one.
When discussing VPNs, free doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Free VPNs could actually be malicious.
For legitimate VPNs though, the tradeoff that you usually make for cost is speed.
Free VPNs are usually not nearly as fast as the paid option.
Why do providers do this?
They want you to buy the full version.
Here are some good free VPNs that you should be safe while using:
Hotspot Shield is a decent free VPN service that offers a sizable amount of free bandwidth compared to other providers.
On the free plan you get 15Gb of bandwidth free every month. However, there are catches to that – namely how many extra ads you’ll get.
Windscribe is a very good service if you are looking for a free VPN option.
The free option works so well that you may not even experience and lag when using it.
You get 2Gb of data each month, unless you register with an email address in which case you get 10Gb.
And if you let them use your device for mining cryptocurrency, you can get more free data.
The free version of ProtonVPN offers unlimited data and is known for not having terrible lagging.
However, on the free plan, you only get to choose from three locations.
Another plus is that the service is also created and hosted by the ProtonMail team – long known for security and privacy.
Speedify’s free plan is great for intermittent VPN usage since you get 5Gb per month.
One way that is does shine though is that it’s pretty fast.
The free plan does have some drawbacks, one of which is that the servers are based in the U.S.
By now, you should understand the benefits of using VPNs.
The same technology that was developed by a Microsoft employee so that workers could access the network remotely, has become a go-to security solution for internet users in oppressed countries as well as those trying to evade cyber criminals.
And in a world where data brokers are savagely pursuing every scrap of data about your online activities and you can no longer trust even your ISP with your data, VPNs are almost a crucial item in our technology tool bags.
So, go sign up for a VPN today.
If you don’t want a paid service, at least use one of the free options that we discussed in the article.
Stay safe online!