“Buy our VPN, to protect your identity and shield you against hackers!”
Many internet users have seen this all-too-common sales pitch, or some form of it. As far as the marketing would like you to know, a VPN is a magical cloak, immune to the ill-will of hackers and trolls, without which you are dangerously unsafe. But what is a VPN, and is it really as magic as it’s made out to be?
First, let’s address those letters: VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. What’s that mean? Well, a Network is an interconnection of computers that talk to each other, and they are made Private by requiring that you be in the network to talk to the network. You are probably familiar with Private Networks if you have ever printed over WiFi or used AirPlay; the network in your home is one such private network. Your devices can talk to each other, but devices outside the network can’t talk to them-you don’t want everybody to be able to access your printer.
Okay, so we understand a Private Network, but what makes it Virtual? What VPN software allows you to do is create your very own Private Network out of thin air, hence the Virtual. To connect to your VPN, you tell your computer where it will find this VPN, sometimes along with a username and password. Once you are on the VPN, you can connect to other devices on the same Private Network. This can be useful if you would like to have multiple devices on different connections act as if they are all on the same WiFi network. This type of VPN configuration is called a Site-to-Site VPN.
While Site-to-Site is one of the traditional configurations for a VPN, modern VPN services generally provide Remote Access VPNs. With a Remote Access VPN, instead of adding on to your connection, the computer is told that any and all requests should be redirected to the VPN server. This effectively means that all internet traffic is sent through the VPN.
There are legitimate reasons to wish to use a Remote Access VPN. For one, it can make it appear to servers as though you are connecting from the VPN server, rather than your own internet connection. This can enable you to bypass geographic filters, by accessing the internet from the VPN server rather than your own internet connection.
Remote Access VPNs also generally encrypt communications between a device and the VPN server, which can serve to hide information from anybody who may be listening in on the connection between your computer and the internet. It is important to note, however, that a VPN does not hide your traffic from everybody.
The way these VPN services are advertised either imply or explicitly state that using their service will let you regain your privacy or keep your information anonymous. However, when you use a VPN service, your computer will be connecting to the internet through their servers, and they will be able to see which websites and services you are connecting to. Government entities, who know that people use VPNs to hide shady activity, often ask VPN services to provide records of traffic as part of an investigation. There is also no guarantee that the VPN service has your best interests in mind. Some VPN services, especially those which are free to use, will attempt to turn a profit by selling information about their users’ browsing habits or adding advertisements to web pages.
VPNs also do not do much to protect you from hackers, as much as VPN services will try to get you to believe. Most hackers nowadays will focus on breaching servers themselves, as they are far more valuable, so using a VPN doesn’t provide any protection here. Ultimately, using a VPN may hide your internet traffic from your Internet Service Provider, your internet traffic is just as exposed to the VPN service as it was to your Internet Service Provider.