The term VPN, or Virtual Private Network, has been getting thrown around fairly heavily over the last few years. They’ve been advertised frequently through various media outlets, including as part of paid sponsorships for various YouTube channels.
Some of you may be wondering what the point of a VPN actually is and whether they should invest in one.
So what exactly is a VPN
A VPN is, in simple terms, a secure and encrypted link between two computer networks.
There are two common situations where you might use a VPN. One is a typical work from home scenario, where you might use a VPN to create a secure connection back to your employer’s network. The other is to establish a secure connection to a commercial VPN provider to supposedly improve the security of your internet connection. It’s this second one that most people are familiar with, and that we’ll be discussing here.
The marketing behind some of the commercial providers contain a multitude of claims. These claims would appear to be very good on paper and aren’t necessarily wrong, though some of them are a little exaggerated. It’s worth closely considering some of these claims so that you can work out what a VPN can help you with whether a VPN is right for you.
What claims should I watch out for?
There are many claims that you would want to approach with caution, because while they’re not necessarily wrong, they also could be considered a little misleading.
The first one to pay attention to is any claim about “military grade encryption” or any other similar claims about the level of encryption supported by the VPN provider. These claims do contain an element of truth – VPN’s do use a high level of encryption to establish an encrypted connection that is very difficult to break – but that doesn’t tell the full story.
Next time you visit some of your favourite websites, have a look at the address bar of your browser. What you want to watch out for is the padlock icon next to the web address. Often you will see either “http” or “https” at the start of the web address.
If you see the padlock icon, or if you see “https”, the website you are visiting is already being delivered via an encrypted link. The encryption being used will be at a similar standard that a VPN provider will be using, so any data you send over this link is already going to be safe from prying eyes. This means it is almost impossible for any username or password will be “sniffed” by a rogue network operator, as these are probably already being delivered using an encrypted link even without a VPN.
Modern web browsers are also becoming much better at warning you of problems with this encryption process. For instance if a certificate provided does not match what was expected, this would possibly indicate the network you’re connecting to is engaging in something to try and intercept this encryption and you will receive a warning. This makes the usual tricks that a network operator could employ a thing of the past.
This means you can be far more confident that any data sent over an encrypted link is already protected from prying eyes, even without a VPN. You should still remain vigilant however, and any warning from your browser that a certificate might be invalid should be taken as a sign to proceed with extreme caution.
You might think that if this isn’t showing a padlock icon, a VPN might help. This isn’t entirely true. The VPN link will only be encrypted between you and the VPN provider. The data going between the VPN provider and the website still won’t be encrypted. For your data to be secure, the entire connection will need to be encrypted, so a VPN provider will not offer much additional protection. In this case, you will need to contact the owner of the website you are visiting and try and convince them of the benefits of using encryption.
So where might a VPN be useful?
While some of the claims made by VPN providers are a bit of a stretch, that’s not to say that a VPN is useless. There are scenarios where utilising a VPN can serve a purpose.
For instance, while the data you share with a particular website might be encrypted, the fact that you’re visiting that website is still visible to your internet provider or the network you’re connecting to. They won’t see the data you’re sharing with your bank, like passwords or credit card numbers, but they’ll know who you bank with. The fact that you visit these websites is information that could be passed to a third party, for instance a marketing company.
The data can also be accessed by some governments who enact legislation that requires internet providers to store certain metadata about a person’s internet usage for a period of time.
If these are a concern for you, then a VPN is a way of reducing the amount of information that can be tracked, though not eliminate tracking entirely. Some services you are connecting to can still work out who you are via other means, for instance using cookies or by providing login credentials. They can still be worth it if you’re privacy conscious, as you can use a VPN alongside other tools to reduce this tracking even further.
Some internet providers are known to manage their bandwidth usage by prioritising some types of internet traffic over others. For instance, they might lower the priority of BitTorrent traffic to stop it from overwhelming their network while prioritising web and email traffic. A VPN is useful here, as the ISP will only be able to see you using a VPN and will treat all your traffic at the same priority.
Another common use of a VPN is to access geo-locked content. It is fairly standard for various streaming platforms to limit some content to certain geographical regions, for instance make some content only available to viewers in the United States. Using a VPN, it is sometimes possible to circumvent these restrictions. Doing this however can carry some risk, as it may be against the Terms of Service of the streaming platform you’re using, which may result in the termination of your account or other sanction.
Finally, there is the issue of pirating content. If you’re involved in obtaining copyrighted content via BitTorrent, some people may choose to use a VPN to hide their IP address from those trying to hunt down pirates. You could argue this is a valid use of a VPN, however it is still legally questionable. Given the cost of many streaming services is fairly cheap nowadays, we’d recommend using these as a more legitimate way of getting access to this content.
There are several valid uses of a VPN. They are a common way to connect to a remote network if you’re working from home. A VPN can be a great way to reduce the amount of tracking that you are subject to while online. If you’re concerned about net neutrality, they can also be useful to avoid the bandwidth management practises of some internet providers.
While legally and ethically questionable, some people use them to get around geo-locking or for movie piracy. It would be remiss of us not to ask you to consider doing the right thing.
Just be aware that some of the claims about encryption or other security risks are a bit of a stretch. If your goal is to reduce the risk of your data intercepted or stolen by rogue network operators these services can lull you into a false sense of security. Your better option is to ensure that your data only goes to trusted services that make use of their own encryption rather than relying on a third party to do this for you. If you find a service you use does not make use of encryption, you should either seek an alternative or discuss this with the service provider to try and have this changed.