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    Definitions 9 min read

    What is a VPN?

    A virtual private network is a middle man that sits between your computer and the server (website) you’re accessing. It conceals your IP address and encrypts your internet data. Beyond protecting your privacy, there are a number of other reasons why you might use a VPN.

    Concealing your IP address increases your security against cyber assaults such as DDOS attacks.

    It can also help you bypass geo-blocking, and even digital censorship in some instances.

    And using a VPN for gaming can also minimise ping, making for a faster, more competitive gaming experience. 

    How does a VPN work?

    As an intermediary between your device and the website you’re accessing, a virtual private network does two main things.

    Encryption tunnel

    It creates what’s known as an “encryption tunnel”. You can think of this as a private tunnel directly between your device and the target server. Traffic can pass through this tunnel, but nobody outside can access it. Thus your data is hidden. 

    This uses state of the art encryption that’s impossible to penetrate, even for your internet service provider.

    IP masking

    Furthermore, a it routes your web communication via one of its own servers. Instead of your own public IP address showing up, it will be the IP address of whichever server your private network service used. Since server networks are normally distributed across the globe, the IP address shown for you will show your location as somewhere totally different. Meanwhile, your true IP address will be masked.

    So in effect, your VPN sets up a completely private connection. None of your personal data will be visible to outsiders, and you can browse the internet as normal.

    Here’s a step by step of how that process works:

    • Your virtual private network provider has a long list of servers located in many different countries around the globe. When you connect to the internet, your device will be connected to one of the VPN’s servers. The IP address of that server will be shown, while your own IP address will be hidden.
    • It creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and its own server. Information transmitted via VPN tunnels cannot be accessed by Internet service providers (ISPs), government entities, or malicious hackers 
    • Once your data reaches the VPN’s remote server, it is decrypted and sent to the website you’re accessing. This means you can browse without anyone knowing what you’re looking at.
    • With the tunnel concealing your browsing data, and the VPN’s remote servers being used instead of your regional one, both your IP address and browsing activity are hidden.

    What are the benefits of a VPN?

    Here are the different ways a virtual private network creates a better, more secure browsing experience for you.

    Connect securely, anywhere

    Mobile internet users regularly connect to public or unsecured WiFi networks. If you’re unlucky enough to be hacked, cybercriminals can spy on your internet activity remotely. Even browsing at home comes with risk: attackers can use your IP address to deploy DDOS attacks.

    By hiding your IP address and encrypting your activity via an encryption tunnel, a VPN secures your internet connection from all potential threats.

    Protect your data privacy

    Everything you do online is visible to your internet service provider, who logs this data and can potentially show it to other parties in future.  By routing your browsing data through an encrypted tunnel, a VPN ensures that nobody – not even your ISP – can see your browsing activity.

    Hide your location

    Did you know that your IP address exposes the physical location of your device? Using the IP address assigned by your ISP allows anyone to estimate your geolocation, and track your movements.

    A VPN service routes your connection through a totally different server. This means the IP address that appears online when you browse will be that of the service provider, not your own. This prevents your real location from being revealed.

    Prevent network throttling

    You may have experienced your ISP “throttling”. This is when your internet provider limits your bandwidth during data-intensive activities like gaming or streaming.

    By hiding the IP address and activity of your device, a VPN can prevent throttling, and speed up your connection when it matters.

    Access geo-blocked content

    Major content streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Youtube will restrict content depending on geographical location. Some customers use a VPN to circumvent the restricted content (a tactic called geo-spoofing ).

    Since the VPN network automatically hides your IP address (and therefore your location) you’ll be able to access restricted content.

    Bypass digital censorships

    Similarly, VPN connections can be used to access restricted by censorship. If you’re living in China, Iran, Cuba, the United Arab Emirates or Russia, you might be banned from particular sites. You can use a virtual private network to evade detection. This means you can circumvent the censorship to access and publish the content you want, while protecting your anonymity.

    Disadvantages of using a VPN

    With so many benefits, you might be wondering why anyone would not use a VPN. Well, there are some disadvantages too.

    VPNs are not free

    Although there are free options, the reliable virtual private networks cost money. This means you’ll need to consider the extra cost of your VPN.

    It can slow down your connection

    A VPN adds an extra “step” to your internet connection, by routing your data through its own server before it reaches a website. This means in some instances using a virtual private network can slow down your connection.

    VPN providers can see your data

    Although a VPN prevents outsiders such as your ISP or a hacker from viewing your data, the service provider may be able to view and even record your online activities. So using one can be a trade off between one risk and another.

    How to choose a VPN provider

    You’re probably wondering what common VPN features you should be looking at.

    There are a few key differentiators, including logging policies, security, connection speed, server location, data caps, and customer service. Here are some of the most common VPN features, and how they impact you.

    Server list

    Each VPN company has its own arsenal of servers around the world. Generally speaking, the more servers the better. This means individual servers are unlikely to be overloaded by the VPN’s network of users, and also means the company can handle a growing user base.

    Server location

    Generally, a VPN connection speed will be faster the closer it is to the server. So if your VPN provider has lots of servers in your country or region, this bodes well for connection speed. 

    But that’s not the only consideration. The location of a server has implications for privacy and security. For example, VPN providers based in countries like China and Russia are at higher risk for security issues because of their laws surrounding data privacy and surveillance. 

    Similarly, nations in the 5 Eyes Alliance, 9 Eyes Alliance, and 14 Eyes Alliance (namely U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia among others) may be subject to intelligence sharing agreements.

    No logs policy

    As you know, your VPN provider can view and even collect your browsing data. While many vendors guarantee not to do this, no-logs policies can be very hard to prove. VPN providers will often keep connection logs of metadata about when the service is used, the duration of use, how much bandwidth is used, etc. and will sometimes sell this information to advertisers under the guise of innovation.

    For you, the best option is to seek a provider with a no-logs policy audited by a third party. This adds a degree of objectivity to the promise of private browsing.

    Encryption Security

    Perhaps the most fundamental feature of any VPN is security. If a connection’s security is compromised, the service is useless. One way of identifying the security of your connection is by checking the level of encryption the service provider uses.

    AES-256 is the most secure encryption algorithm available today, and is employed by many VPN providers to encrypt your browsing data. Looking for this encryption standard is one objective way of assessing the security of your VPN.

    Connection speed

    VPN users should expect connection speeds to be slightly slower than a regular connection, but the speed must still remain practical. Factors that impact connection speed include the protocol(s) used, server capacity, bandwidth availability, and network traffic among others. You can check the average connection speed of a VPN service by looking online before you buy.

    Simultaneous connections

    Chances are you’re using multiple Internet-accessing devices at once – think phones, tablets and laptops. So it makes sense that your VPN provider should accommodate multiple secure connections.

    The number of simultaneous device connections varies by vendor, and this is a factor worth considering.

    Split tunneling

    Split tunneling is an emerging trend in VPN tunneling is to divert some traffic to the VPN server while allowing other traffic to continue directly through the ISP server. This is particularly useful in cases where latency can cause more trouble than the extra security is worth, such as online gaming.

    Data caps

    Some VPN services – particularly the free ones – limit your data allocation. This can be a big limitation, particularly if you engage in high bandwidth activity such as gaming or streaming. It’s therefore critical to consider the data allowance of your VPN, relative to your digital activity.

    Support

    The mark of an effective VPN is that you forget you’re using it. 

    VPNs should maintain seamless connectivity, but it’s important to have an agile customer service team ready to address any issues or questions that might arise. The best VPN vendors offer 24/7 support through multiple channels, including phone, email, and live chat.