Introduction to VPNs

For our first real post, we thought we would start at the very beginning and briefly explain what a VPN is. This knowledge should help us all be on the same page going forward.

VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. When you browse the internet using a VPN, you are doing so via an encrypted tunnel. This tunnel allows you to browse websites, social media, and any other online property securely and privately.

The encrypted tunnel works by creating a direct connection between your device, be it a phone, tablet or computer, and a VPN server. Tunneling will encapsulate any transmitted data into standard TCP/IP packets that can then be sent across the Internet. If you didn’t quite get this last part, don’t worry about it too. All you need to know is that VPNs will always work over the Internet.

Because the data you’re sending and receiving is encrypted, your internet service provider, the government or hackers cannot see what’s it is. Your ISP won’t be able to slow down your internet connection based on what you’re doing. Hackers won’t be able to compromise any of your usernames, passwords or banking information when you’re connected to a public WiFi.

Diagram showing how virtual private networks work

Depending on where you live in the world, VPN services can also help you defeat internet censorship. With most providers, you get a selection of servers all over the planet. If you live in China and connected to a server in the US, you would then be browsing the Internet as though you were physically located in the US. Any censorship imposed by the Chinese government would be effectively bypassed.

One other last thing worth pointing out is how a VPN differs from a Proxy. The two share some similarities. In both cases, your device connects to a server which then talks to the Internet at large. The key difference is that traffic between your device and the Proxy server is not encrypted as is the case with VPNs. So, while you still can “pretend” you’re in a different location and access censored content, everyone from your ISP to the government will be able to tell exactly what information you’re looking at. Proxies also don’t provide you with any protection on public networks.

That is VPNs in a nutshell. Although they’re quite complicated behind the scenes, they’re relatively straightforward to use for you and me, the end users. We will get into details on how to select a VPN provider and connect to one of their servers in future posts.

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