The Ultimate Beginners Guide To VPNs
Most people go about their business online without giving thought to how much personal info is being shared. If you take a step back and really look at your activity – the sites you visit, what you post on social media, the files you download, the information you provide through forms – it paints a picture of just how much you’re exposing yourself online.
And that might not be such an issue if it weren’t for the fact that most of that data and activity is sent through unsecured and unencrypted connections. Anyone with the means to do so could intercept your data.
In some cases, people suffer censorship where their data is intercepted, and content is blocked.
Thankfully, there’s a solution. A VPN allows you to secure that data and protect your online activity from prying eyes. In this guide, we’ll help you understand the purpose of VPNs, how they work, the benefits, choosing the right VPN provider, and red flags to help you identify VPNs you should avoid.
What is a VPN?
A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a form of technology that allows you to access the internet privately, away from the prying eyes of your Internet Service Provider, the government, and potential hackers. It does this by acting like a tunnel that routes your connection directly to the web, meaning no one else can steal your private or sensitive data.
A VPN adds an essential extra layer of privacy to your online activity, by encrypting your data (turning information into special code) so your private searches, passwords, and other sensitive material cannot be read by others.
A VPN also enables its users to pretend that they’re in a different country, which means you can access content that might not have been available otherwise.
How Do VPNs Work?
While there’s a lot of complex software and hardware behind the scenes, the way a VPN works for the user (you) is quite simple:
- Normally, when you connect to the internet your traffic is routed directly to a host, like the server hosting a website. When you connect to the internet with a VPN service activated your traffic makes its first stop at the VPN service’s servers.
- Once connected to the VPN servers your IP address (a unique block of numbers that identifies your device) is switched out and the VPN provides its own IP address attached to your traffic.
- From that point, all traffic passing through the VPN server is encrypted. This process converts all the data into a code that prevents unauthorized access. Even if someone intercepted your traffic, they wouldn’t be able to decipher it.
A simpler way to understand how a VPN works is to imagine you’re driving down the highway in a convertible with the top down. Above you is a satellite capable of seeing everything you do – that satellite represents not only your internet service provider but also the websites and servers you connect to and anyone else who wants to monitor your unencrypted traffic.
The best way to stop them from seeing what you’re doing in your car, and where you’re going, is to drive into a tunnel. When you use a VPN, they have no idea where the tunnel exit is.
Every time you type in a web address (the domain name) there’s a resolution step that happens almost instantaneously. The DNS (domain name system) is like a phone book, matching text-based website addresses with the IP address tied to a website’s server. If someone wanted track your activity, they could monitor DNS requests to see what you’re up to online.
But a VPN thwarts that. Most VPN services also include their own DNS resolution system so the DNS request (when you type in a website address) looks like it’s coming from the VPN service instead of you.
Here is a detailed video that goes into further detail on how a Virtual Private Network works: