How Do VPNs Work and Why You Might Need One?
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are growing in popularity, but for a newcomer, all of the technical specifications and jargon used to describe them can be overwhelming. To simplify things, we’ve created a simple, easy-to-understand guide that explains what VPNs are, how they work, and why you might need one. Let’s start with the basics:
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3. Can I Get In Trouble For Using A VPN?
4. How Is A VPN Different From A Proxy Or Smart DNS Service?
5. VPNs Are The Easiest Way To Browse The Web Anonymously
Why Might I Need A VPN?
Every country has different laws about what you can and can’t do on the internet. This means that, depending on where you live, you might find it impossible to access social media, sources of unbiased news, or secure messaging services. As you can imagine, this causes real problems for journalists, activists, and whistleblowers, and even more so if they’re in a country with a poor record on human rights.
Luckily, VPNs allow you to bypass country-wide blocking by connecting to a server in another part of the world. Of course, not all situations have such high stakes. Perhaps you’re on vacation but have recently discovered that your favorite streaming service is only available in your home country. Maybe you’d just like to see what’s available in another region’s Netflix library. Either way, a VPN can help; just connect to a server in the required country and you’ll be able to use geo-restricted services as though you were actually there.
VPNs are great tools for anyone who wants to remain as anonymous as possible online. As your real IP address is hidden, the websites you visit won’t know which country you actually live in, and as your traffic is encrypted, it can’t be read by hackers, your internet service provider (ISP), or the government.
How Do VPNs Work Exactly?
Normally, when you use the internet, your activities are logged by your ISP. If you’re browsing at work, your employer might also be watching. In fact, depending on where you are in the world, the government could even be keeping an eye on your traffic.
So how do VPNs keep you anonymous and your traffic secure? Well, they use a combination of techniques, and we’ll take a closer look at these below:
1. Uncrackable Encryption
Essentially, encryption is when you hide the contents of a message so that only you and your intended recipient can read it.
Imagine you wanted to send a postcard but didn’t want the postman to see what it said. If you and your friend wrote your message in a secret code, it’d be encrypted, and only you two would be able to read it. In principle, your internet traffic works the same way: your ISP (the postman) can’t see which sites you visit (the message on the postcard) because it’s encrypted (written in a secret code).
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Here’s the best part: the encryption most VPNs use (256-bit AES) is far more complex than any code you or I could come up with. In fact, it’d take a supercomputer thousands of years to crack without the correct decryption key. This guarantees that your online activities cannot be read by anyone except you and the sites you visit.
2. Hiding Your Real IP Address
Your IP address actually tells people quite a lot about you. For instance, people can use it to find out which country (and sometimes even which city) you live in, or attackers can use it to find out which service provider you’re with. Worse still, all kinds of people have access to your IP address: every single website you visit can see it, as can anyone in the same game lobby as you, or anyone who’s downloading the same torrent.
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When you connect to a VPN, though, your IP address is hidden. Instead, all anyone can see is the IP address of the server you’re using, which points to a different location and which has a different ISP. As such, there’s no way for anyone to find out where you really are.
As an added bonus, VPNs help protect you against Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which is where an attacker sends thousands of requests to your router or server, forcing it offline. However, VPN networks generally have thousands of servers spread over several countries, meaning they can easily absorb and redirect all but the most coordinated attacks.
3. Advanced Security Features
Encryption isn’t the only tool your VPN uses to keep your traffic secure. For instance, many (including LimeVPN) offer DNS leak protection, which prevents DNS requests from escaping the encrypted VPN tunnel and becoming readable to anyone who’s watching your network.
Another commonly-included feature is a kill switch. These immediately stop all data transferal and block network access if you unexpectedly lose your connection to the VPN. Normally, if your connection drops, you’d reconnect to the internet, but not necessarily the VPN. This means you could end up browsing unprotected without realizing it. With the kill switch enabled, however, this simply cannot happen.
4. Privacy-First Logging Policies
You can have the best, most secure connection in the world, but if your VPN provider keeps logs of your activities, you were never really protected to begin with. Simply, governments and law enforcement agencies can request all of the data that your VPN provider has about you.
If your VPN provider keeps traffic logs, these third parties can see all of your activities, and all sorts of other information such as what time you connected, how much bandwidth you used, and so on. Worse still, as countries often share intelligence information with one another, there’s no way of telling who has access to your data. In contrast, if your VPN doesn’t keep any personally identifiable information, it can’t reveal details of your activities even if asked to.
Can I Get In Trouble For Using A VPN?
This is a very common question but it’s a bit like asking whether you can get in trouble for using the internet. VPNs are perfectly legal In most countries, which means you don’t have to worry unless you’re using one to commit crimes. Even in China, which has some of the strictest web-filtering in the world, VPNs aren’t inherently illegal; it’s just that access to foreign VPNs is heavily restricted (although there are still a few that work, as Comparitech has found).
There are a handful of exceptions, though, in countries like Iraq, where VPNs are banned outright. Given how widely the rules vary from one region to another, it’s best to consult the relevant legislation before attempting to use a VPN in a foreign country.
How Is A VPN Different From A Proxy Or Smart DNS Service?
The terms “VPN”, “proxy”, and “Smart DNS” are often used interchangeably, but these are actually three separate things. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between a proxy, a VPN, and a Smart DNS service.
At first glance, proxy servers might seem similar to VPNs because they allow you to bypass some forms of online blocking. However, unlike VPNs, which encrypt all traffic from your device, proxy servers tend to only encrypt browser traffic (and some don’t even do that). Additionally, most proxies only have one server location, whereas VPNs tend to have servers in dozens of different countries.
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Smart DNS services, on the other hand, don’t encrypt your traffic at all. They simply reroute your traffic to a DNS server in a different country, allowing you to access certain region-locked services from abroad. In contrast, a good VPN will do this but also keep your activities private.
VPNs Are The Easiest Way To Browse The Web Anonymously
VPNs give you the freedom to experience a wide range of services that would otherwise be completely inaccessible. They allow expats to watch TV from back home, journalists to report from dangerous locations, and travelers to communicate with their friends and family, wherever they go. Most importantly, VPNs give you control by ensuring that your activities remain private at all times. In a world with rapidly-increasing levels of online surveillance, isn’t this just what we need? Get VPN services now!