What the hell is a VPN?

August 13, 2016

You’ve probably heard the term ‘VPN’ bounced around from time to time and asked yourself – what the hell is a VPN and why do I need one?

Before I start please let me emphasise that although it may sound quite technical at times (especially if you’re a technical dinosaur), it’s worth battling through and understanding what Virtual Private Networks are and how they can be seriously useful for keeping your PClaptop or mobile phone secure online. So let’s take it back to basics…

What the hell is a VPN?

A VPN stands for a ‘virtual private network‘; yes I know that already sounds too much for most so if you want to stop reading then you can do so now. For those who make it past this point then you will be rewarded with secure and VIP use of the internet on all of your internet enabled devices from now on.

When you connect to the internet you connect to the World Wide web, hence the WWW you see at the beginning of website addresses. The world wide web is a huge network of computers, websites, all over the world. When you connect to a WiFi connection and browse to a website on the world wide web, you are effectively connecting to a network. Within the world wide web there are also small private networks which are virtual i.e. you don’t have to be in the same physical location to connect to that smaller network, you can be anywhere in the world. These are the so-called virtual private networks.

When you connect to a VPN you connect to this smaller network which in turn connects you on to the internet (or world wide web) via the network’s internet connection. So effectively the VPN is acting as a middleman between your device and the internet. Whether you’re checking your Facebook app on your phone or sending an email on your laptop, all of your internet activity is always being routed first to the VPN and then onto the rest of the internet from there.

When you connect to the internet via a secure VPN your connection to the VPN itself is encrypted, meaning it’s scrambled in a certain way only your device and the VPN know how to put back together again – que humpty dumpty puns. So when you’re watching for example a YouTube video, the video is being downloaded from the internet to the VPN and then from there the video data is encrypted and sent to your device where it’s then unencrypted (reassembled) on your device and played as normal – you’re none the wiser.

Every device or website on the internet has a unique address called an IP address. It works a lot like a house address – it simply allows you to be identified on the internet. Imagine you want to send an anonymous letter to somebody in the post. It’s like you send a letter from your house (identified by your unique address) to your friend’s house (the VPN) and the letter is written in a special language only you and your friend can read. Once your friend has received the letter they then translates it into a normal language, repackage it into a new envelope and then sends it on to the final destination address. The destination address will only know only about the friends address and will be none the wise about yours. If they want to send a letter back then it first goes to the friend’s address who then translates it back into your secret language and sends it back to you.

Sounds scary right? Don’t be worried – just let me explain.

So why are VPNs useful?

Privacy and security

When you connect to the internet via a VPN your connection is encrypted. This means anybody who’s snooping into your internet traffic will just find a whole load of scrambled data which they cannot make sense of. So if you’re using a public WiFi connection for example, anybody around (or those who’s WiFi connection it is) cannot see what you’re doing online. This is awesome because it means if you’re banking, messaging, emailing or doing anything private then it is in fact… private. Without the VPN they could easily intercept your traffic and because it wouldn’t be encrypted they would be able to read it easily. So next time you’re using a WiFi connection at the airport or a cafe, just think about who might be watching and if you really want them to be able to read that email you’re sending. Places you might want to use the VPN:

  • Any publicly used or free WiFi connection
  • Friends and families WiFi – they might not be the snoopers however how do you know they haven’t accidentally installed some dodgy malware they know nothing about?
  • Airport WiFi
  • Work internet – Are you sure your boss isn’t watching what you’re looking at work?
  • On your mobile phone

My recommendation –

Downloading content

Firstly for all the keyboard warriors out there, I am referring only to the downloading of legal content over the internet. When you download a file from the internet, let’s say a video of somebody’s cat which they have shared online – why the hell does everyone love cats so much? Dogs are infinitely more awesome. Anyway… when you connect to the computer or website which has the video on it, you effectively tell it your IP address so it knows where to send the video i.e. your device.

If you wanted to download that video anonymously, because you don’t want your dog to get jealous of your cat fetish then you’ve blown it already. If you would have connected first to the VPN and then tried to download the video then your IP address would have been hidden. All the website or computer with the cat video would have seen was the IP address of the VPN as a middleman. OK so you might be thinking, but the VPN knows my IP address so this still isn’t really anonymous. You’re sort of right, however many VPNs don’t keep logs of what IP addresses connect to them so as soon as the video is downloaded the record of your IP address connection to the VPN mysteriously vanishes. I won’t go any further into this however those who download torrents or use usenet may want to research this further.

My recommendation – Good VPN for Downloading Content Online

Bypassing work or government filters

Has your workplace blocked Facebook so you can’t waste time in the day endlessly scrolling down that news feed, or has your government blocked Facebook because, well… they’re mental? Well remember I mentioned that your connection via the VPN encrypts all your traffic to and from the internet and your device. Well this means that the filters in place on the internet connection you are using cannot see what websites you are visiting and therefore cannot block them. It can only block you from Facebook if it can read your traffic and see that you are trying to access that website. If all it sees is scrambled data which it cannot put back together again (only you and the VPN know how) then it will have no idea what the hell you’re doing. If you’re in China or somewhere then please be aware that you might need a specialist VPN or encryption type.

My recommendation – Good VPN for Bypassing Government Filters

Unlock content and catch-up TV from other countries

Remember that IP address your device has when it connects to the internet. Well these are specific to different countries, just like you include your country in your house address if you’re trying to receive something from abroad. This means that if you’re to try to watch catch-up TV from say the USA in the UK then it may come up with a message saying ‘You’re not in the US, bugger off!’ and will prevent you from watching it. Most VPNs are made up of computers (or servers for those who understand what that is) which can be located in lots of different countries. When you connect to the VPN you can normally choose to connect to it via a specific country. So in the scenario mentioned, you’d connect to the VPN via it’s USA IP address and then try to access the catch-up TV in America again. The catch-up TV website then sees a USA IP address trying to access it (this is the one you chose when connecting to the VPN) and voila it doesn’t block it.

My recommendation – Best VPN for Unlocking Geographically Restricted Content

OK, which VPN should I use?

There are hundreds of VPN companies out there and each has its own unique take on what it offers its users. Depending on what you are using the VPN for, you should think carefully about finding a VPN which works best for this type of internet activity. Some of the things to consider are:

  • What country is the VPN company in? (different countries have different rules the company has to abide by)
  • Does the VPN company keep activity or access logs? (some do some don’t)
  • Does the VPN company have servers in the countries I want to connect through? (if you want to access content in a specific country, make sure they support it)
  • What types of encryption do they use? (some encryption types are quicker but less secure, others are stronger but could slow your connection down slightly)
  • Is there a free trial? (if you’re not sure yet, have a try)
  • Is the VPN quick? (You don’t want your connection to slow down, nobody likes buffering)

Final word (we got there in the end)

Well done for making it this far! Seriously, you deserve a medal. I know VPNs sound complicated and you may be thinking that you’re not technical enough to use one. However most VPN companies offer an app which you install (it’s just click ‘next’ after ‘next’), run the app, enter the username & password which the VPN company give you and simple press connect. The app will have settings where you can select the country, type of encryption and a million other things if you need them but on the whole they are seriously simple to use. A good all-rounder VPN which is suitable for 99% of users, commending for years is called Hide My Ass – they’re probably the number one provider in the world and I couldn’t speak more highly of their service. If you’re ready get started then click below for the latest special offer open to all my readers. Please comment if you have any question or would like to know more.