Until a few years ago, VPNs - short for 'Virtual Private Networks' - were mainly used by businesses so that their employees could safely connect to the company network while working remotely.
However, in 2016, British government introduced the Investigatory Powers Act. The Act legalised government agencies to be able to track what users do online with very little oversight. Some critics have deemed the Act to represent a move of government overreach.
And, in addition to the Investigatory Powers Act, streaming services and websites have begun adopting geo-blocking - a motion designed to restrict access to particular content to certain locations.
With such laws and motions in mind, the popularity of VPNs to be used to increase personal privacy, as well to circumvent certain restrictions, has skyrocketed amongst the general public in the UK.
And, while VPNs can be a useful tool in helping protect yourself online, it's important to understand how they work, as well as their benefits and limitations so you can decide for yourself whether you need one.
The internet: a brief explanation
To understand what a VPN is and how it works, it's first important to understand how your device works with your online activity.
When you use your device to connect to the internet, it will first connect to your router - either over a wireless connection (Wi-Fi) or wired using an Ethernet cable. The router connects to a modem which connects to the internet via your broadband provider.
Through these connections, your device sends small pieces of information known as 'data packets'. These data packets contain requests on what you want to do on the internet, for example log into a banking app ot navigate to a website.
The website or app will respond to these data packets that are sent from your device by sending back its own data packets which will display the requested information.
These data packets being sent back and forth contain a lot of information that, are not encrypted, and as such, can be shared with your broadband provider, as well as any of the sites or apps you're visiting. This information includes:
- Which web pages you visit, when, and for how long.
- Any information entered into websites that aren't HTTPS secure.
- Your exact location based on your IP address
Essentially, this unencrypted information can track your online behaviour and location, as well as restrict your access to certain content.
So how does a VPN help?
What does a VPN do?
A VPN enhances your privacy by encrypting your data and sending it through a 'tunnel', making it extremely difficult for people to know what you're doing online.
The data packets you send go through this encrypted tunnel to a remote server owned by the VPN company. Then, before being sent on to the website or app, the data packets are decrypted. The sites and apps returning these data packets will use the same encryption/decryption tunnel.
Because the data being sent back and forth is encrypted, even if the network connected to is compromised and being monitored by someone, no information is seen - only a garbled mix of letters and numbers.
Summary: the difference between using a VPN and not
To summarise, there are a few differences between using a VPN and using the internet without a VPN enabled:
- A VPN encrypts all data being sent and received. It is only decrypted once it reaches the server controlled by the VPN company.
- Your broadband provider can't see which websites it is you choose to visit.
- The IP address of the VPN server hides your actual IP address.
Using a VPN to get around geo-blocking
Nowadays, most major streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, as well as news, sports, and gaming sites, use geo-blocking, meaning the content on these platforms can only be accessed by users in certain countries. Websites and apps use your IP address to determine your location.
Typically enforced by companies and governments in order to comply with distribution rights and copyright laws, geo-blocking is perfectly legal. Some countries - such as China and Iran - also enforce geo-blocking for more politically-minded motivations.
But a VPN can circumvent these restrictions by allowing you to change your location.
The VPN works by routing your web traffic through a server in another country, hiding your actual IP address and replacing it with a temporary, country-specific one. As a result, most platforms that have geo-restrictions placed upon then cannot tell the difference between a VPN user and someone who is actually in the country.
Aside from bypassing geo-blocking, what else does a VPN do?
Aside from accessing content in different locations, a VPN can also be a good idea to help protect your privacy online:-
When connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi network
An unsecured network most often refers to a free Wi-Fi network, such as is available at a restaurant or cafe. These networks do not require any kind of login or screening process, meaning that you, and anyone else in the vicinity, can use it.
While on an unsecured network, the data for any sites or apps you access will be unencrypted, and anyone can capture this data.
For example, over an unsecured network, a malicious entity could capture your email address or password and use this to access your email account, as well as access other personal information without your knowledge.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will my internet slow down while using a VPN?
While using a VPN, you might experience internet that is slowed down. This is usually because of the time it takes for your data to be encrypted, decrypted, and then encrypted again.
If you use a VPN to connect to a server located on the other side of the world - for example to gain access to certain content from an app or website - you may also notice a difference in your broadband speed.
But ultimately, whether or not you'll experience slowed broadband speeds while using a VPN will depend on the quality and configuration of the VPN server itself.
In most cases, any latency will usually be negligible as long as you choose a reputable VPN provider.
Will a VPN protect me from computer viruses?
No. Although a VPN can increase your online safety by encrypting the data you send and receive, it does not protect you from computer viruses or other malware (malicious software).
If I use a VPN, will I still be able to be tracked online?
You can block all cookies on your computer, but be aware that doing so means websites may not work properly.
If I use a VPN, am I really anonymous on the internet?
In short - no. There are currently no VPNs available that will provide true, 100% anonymity. However, a good VPN provider will be able to give you a good degree of both.
Essentially, a VPN hides your identity by masking your IP address and in doing so, makes your whereabouts unknown.
But there are other ways for entities to find out who you are. For example, if you're logged into Google Chrome and using the browser to surf the internet, Google can track everything it is that you're doing.
Additionally, the MAC address (Media Access Control address) on your device, as well as certain accounts you log into can reveal your identity.
A low-quality VPN could also reveal your identity. For example, if you choose to use a free VPN service, the provider of that service will usually make their money by selling your data on to third-parties. Some free VPN companies will also keep connection logs, which monitors and records your general connection information, including your IP address, the IP address of the website you're visiting, the connection time, and the amount of data that has been transferred.
For this reason, you'll want to ensure that before signing up to a particular VPN company, you check their logging policies. Ideally, you'll want to go with someone that has a 'zero logs' service, which means they don't store data about your online activity.
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