Today we're arming you with everything you need to know to understand and use virtual private networks.
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Lifehacker/GMG, photos via Shutterstock
In trying to puzzle out just what, exactly, a virtual private network (VPN) is, it can be helpful to simply take the first word away. That leaves you with "private network", which seems pretty straightforward. A private network is one that is basically walled off from everyone who doesn't have permission to access it. Think of your university intranet. Or the CIA servers.
Adding the "virtual" part back in basically means that you access this private network virtually, from your home computer (as it wouldn't really do to have university or spy agency-sized servers running in your house.)
But what is a VPN really?
VPNs are basically a set of servers that you connect to through your internet service provider (ISP). Once you have established a connection with your VPN, a process known as tunnelling, the servers act as your virtual home on the internet. It's as if you moved yourself into a secure office space without actually moving at all.
As you surf the web from this secure space, all of the data you send and receive is encrypted, offering you a good degree of privacy. Once tunnelled in, your ISP - or even certain spy agencies - can't tell what information you're browsing or downloading.
Why use a VPN?
Obviously, security is one of the main reasons to always use a VPN to access the internet. Because all of your data is encrypted once tunnelled, if a hacker were trying to intercept your browsing activity, say, while you were entering your credit card number to make an online purchase, the encryption would stymie their efforts. That's why it's a particularly good idea to use VPNs in public settings such as cafes and airports.
The second major reason to go with a VPN is the closely related issue of privacy. If you like to surf for garden gnomes made in the late 19th century in Gräfenroda, Germany, that's no one else's business, right? By encrypting your data, what you search for, what you say in forums, and what you watch through streaming is entirely your own business.
It's important to remember that a VPN will protect the data you transmit from your computer to the VPN hub, but it won't necessarily prevent you from being tracked with cookies and other web trackers.
"VPN provides encryption to network traffic," Ximning Ou from the University of Southern Florida told us. "It ensures the communication cannot be easily eavesdropped/tampered with by adversaries. It does not impact application features like cookies. So yes cookies can still be set on your browser if you are tunneled through VPN."
To avoid such tracking efforts, it's advisable to conduct all your surfing with your browser set on incognito or private mode. You may also want to consider installing tracking-blocking software such as ghostery.
A third substantial consideration for using a VPN is the fact that it can give you a virtual location. Worried about the cops coming to knock on your door due to your unnatural fascination with garden gnomes? They won't actually be able to link your IP address with your physical address. Want to play in an online poker room but it isn't allowed from your country? Then simply tunnel into a country where such activity is sanctioned and you'll be good to go (all in). Looking to stream that film that was banned by your government? It probably isn't banned everywhere, so find a country where it's viewable, tunnel in, and break out the popcorn.
This can also work the opposite way. If you're travelling far from your home country, but you want to watch a show that's only available on a provider such as Netflix back home, you can tunnel there to view it. The same would hold true for banking and other websites that might not be accessible anywhere but the motherland.
Of course, while tunnelling into a VPN may let you get around the laws and restrictions of your country, don't forget that you are still bound by them. VPN usage doesn't make you invisible, just anonymous. So if you're doing a lot of suspicious surfing and you catch the eye of a government agency, with enough resources and time, they will likely be able to find you.
How to choose a VPN provider
There are now simply scores and scores of VPN providers to choose from. Finding the one that's right for you comes down to a few basic considerations:
- Cost versus security. In general, the more security a VPN service provides, the higher the cost will be. Most users will be just fine using an affordable mainstream VPN provider that offers solid service from about $7 to $17 per month. While an evaluation of different VPN providers is beyond the scope of this article, examining reviews of different providers and going with one that has a long-standing reputation for protecting its users is always a good place to start. One Reddit user even put together a massive list that evaluates different VPN providers.
- Logs vs no logs. On the subject of security, one factor that separates providers is whether or not they keep logs of user data and browsing activity. If they don't, then you get an extra degree of anonymity. If they do, then those records could become a way to track you down if someone wanted to put in the time.
- IP sharing. Another quick way to evaluate a potential VPN service provider is to find out if they give out the same IP address to multiple users. It's harder to pinpoint one user if many are surfing from the same IP address, so IP sharing offers another level of protection.
- Location of servers. With the advent of near ubiquitous Wi-Fi, it easy to forget that the internet is still a thing connected with cables and wires. So a service that offers a wide range of VPN sites can be advantageous. If you regularly want to stream content from the UK, and you live in Kansas, for example, then you'll want to see if your provider has a hub on the east coast of the US as well as a server in London. Server location can also be important based on your needs. If, for some reason, it's advantageous for you to have an IP address in Japan, then make sure your provider will let you tunnel there.
- Server quantity. A VPN provider that has more servers will mean that you won't be crammed onto an overcrowded server where your connection times will be slowed down.
- Multiple device support. Once you sign up for a VPN service, you'll not only want to connect your own computer, but you might have other computers, tablets and phones on which you'll want to install the software. Most providers let you connect up to five devices, but be sure to check into that before you sign up.
- IP leaking. One relatively easy way to evaluate a VPN provider is to see if they offer a free trial. If they do, sign up, tunnel in, and then visit this site. It will help you determine if you have an IP leak, meaning that your true location is somehow being leaked. If you see your ISP or your true physical location on this page, then you'll want to move on and find a more secure VPN provider.
- User Interface. Finally, take a look at the way in which a VPN provider's software actually looks and operates. Does it seem relatively straightforward to operate? Is it easy to turn on and off? Is it easy to quickly change the location into which you're tunnelled? While you likely won't be using your VPN software a lot, it's good to know that when you need it, you won't mind accessing it and you'll have the control you want at your fingertips.
So are there any drawbacks to using a VPN?
If you're considering adding a VPN to your web surfing activities, there are two considerations you'll want to be aware of.
The first potential issue is also the very thing that makes VPNs appealing to some - the ability to spoof your address. That's great when you need to appear to be in another country to access its services and content, but not so great all of the time. For instance, let's say you're based Australia but tunnelled into the UK, and you decide to do a little online shopping. Suddenly, all of your pricing will be in pounds instead of dollars.
Also, if you're signing up for certain services, such as Bitcoin, the system will take your IP address as gospel for your location, so you might wind up getting pigeonholed into an area where you don't really live. Once that happens, making a change isn't always as easy as changing the tunnel and reloading the site.
Secondly, working from a remote site can cause slow downs in your browsing speed. Sometimes it's barely noticeable, but sometimes it can be significant - and it goes back to the idea that your information still needs to travel through cables to your VPN before you can get out to the internet.
Still, as the recent Krack attack shows, using a VPN is practically becoming a necessity rather than simply an option. That attack opened up vulnerabilities for pretty much anyone using Wi-Fi without the protection of a VPN tunnel. So, even though there are some issues with using a VPN, the benefits far outweigh them and getting even the minimal protections offered by a free provider is certainly not something you'd regret.