VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are networks created by private companies to shield their customers against external surveillance while they surf the web, stream videos or download torrents. Commonly used by businesses to facilitate remote working and protect data, they are just as useful for everyday web users and are becoming even more popular in a world where online threats mount by the month. So you may be wondering: How does a VPN work?
You might have come across VPNs in the press, or when browsing the web, without taking the plunge and actually downloading a client. Therefore, we’ll have a quick look at how a VPN works, and why it’s important for anyone who uses today’s internet.
Understanding the basics: How does a VPN work?
At the most basic level, VPNs operate by encrypting the data users send, from the moment it leaves their browser or torrent client, to the point it reaches its target.
The VPN client is a piece of software provided by each VPN, which acts as the front end, giving you a selection of servers to access. But it does more than that. It also contains the encryption keys used by the VPN, making sure that there are no leaks at any stage of the routing process.
This routing process is another key aspect of Virtual Private Networks. Instead of data being routed via your Internet Service Provider (ISP) through routing servers to the target location, with a VPN data is transferred via a network of servers maintained by the VPN provider. When it reaches the target, it seems that the data has originated from these servers, instead of your own computer.
So, for example, if you live in China and want to access Netflix in the USA, you might be blocked from doing so by geoblockers. With a VPN, you can pretend to be located in America, making those obstacles irrelevant.
Different types of VPN
Now that we’ve answered your question, “how does a VPN work?” we need to talk about the different kinds of VPN, with different roles and uses.
- Standard client VPNs
These VPNs use a standalone client and tend to encrypt everything which leaves your computer. This provides an extensive degree of protection but can result in slowdown across the entire system.
- Browser add-ons
Browsers like Chrome and Firefox can now be enhanced with VPN add-ons. In these cases, only data handled by the browser will be encrypted, reducing slowdown, but meaning users need to be careful about using additional apps.
- Site to Site VPNs
Both of the previous two types tend to be remote access VPNs, meaning that users log onto a remote network somewhere else in the world. Site to Site VPNs are different. They resemble intranets, in that they are self-contained and usually custom-built for businesses who want secure connections between different locations.
How Virtual Private Networks shield your identity
Protecting online identity is often a major source of anxiety for people coming to VPNs for the first time, and there is a range of reasons for this.
- People may live in countries where the government actively spy on web users, seeking evidence of dissent. In these cases, protecting an individual’s identity could be a matter of life and death, and only the most respected VPN providers are recommended.
- There may be concerns about financial crime. These days we make around 40 billion online transactions every day. It’s become ingrained in everyday life, opening doors for cyber-criminals, but VPNs can provide peace of mind of businesses and individuals who are afraid of betraying their financial details.
- Shielding online activity from outside agencies. It’s not just government censorship which motivates people to use VPNs. Torrenters, p2p file sharers and those accessing online streaming services can all benefit from keeping their identity safe and sound.
The question is, how exactly do VPNs ensure people that they are truly protected when they use the internet?
Firstly, they encrypt your data before it leaves your computer using tunneling protocols. The protocols wrap the data packets generated by your computer in an extra layer of encryption and generate a “tunnel” to the VPN servers.
Before this happens, the VPN has to set up a route for the tunnel, negotiating with every node on the route, until the packet is ready to go.
In the process, VPNs protect data from your ISP, governments, criminals, and actors like marketing agencies. But as we’ll see, they aren’t necessarily watertight.
Are there downsides to how a VPN works?
Before you download one of the web’s leading VPN clients, it’s definitely a good idea to acquaint yourself with some major problems associated with these privacy providers.
- Firstly, older VPNs have long been associated with slowdown. When they encrypt everything that leaves your computer or smartphone, VPNs can place extra burdens (particularly on older computers), rendering using the web a sluggish experience.
- Then there’s the integrity of VPNs themselves. Even though they protect individuals against outside actors, VPNs often have privileged access to the data and identity of their customers, which can be sold on to marketers or used for more nefarious purposes.
- Leakage is another potential issue. Even though tunneling seems watertight, poorly run VPNs can still leak data and IP addresses. A recent report from The Best VPN website found that of 74 leading VPN providers, 16 were prone to leak data – whether from Chrome extensions or through DNS servers.
These issues are part of the architecture of VPNs, but they can all be avoided. For instance, the terms and conditions of VPNs vary wildly regarding logs and data retention, and free VPNs tend to be worse than paid services.
Some VPNs have struggled to plug leaks, some are easier for repressive governments to block, and newer options have found ways to work around slowdown. Many even promise enhanced performance, although that should usually be taken with a pinch of salt.
Find out for yourself
Now that that question, “how does a VPN work?” is out of your way, it’s time to investigate the options and take your pick. In a world of multiplying online threats, it’s really becoming an essential part of basic security setups, and there are some slick providers to choose from. So read reviews, try a few free options, and give your data the protection it needs.