How Do VPNs Work?

What is a VPN?

The concept of a VPN may seem intimidating at first, but they are actually simple to use.  Downloading a good VPN and getting online anonymously can be done in minutes with a few clicks. 

But, if you want to know more about how VPNs work before your hand over your hard-earned money to a service, then let’s discuss the fundamentals so you can make an informed decision.

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network for accessing online content privately and securely. 

It’s virtual because it connects you using a server in another country to make you appear to be there (virtually) when actually you’re at home.

It’s private because it masks your IP information with strong encryption privacy algorithms.

Finally, it’s a network because it’s part of an international Wide Area Network (WAN)— i.e., the Internet.  However, for all intents and purposes, the VPN behaves less like a WAN and more like a private, closed network—which gives you added security.

Simply put, VPNs act as a third party to protect your outgoing information from the wide-open Internet, and to protect dangerous content or censorship firewalls from compromising your Internet experience.

What is the Internet, Really?

Before we dive further into the inner workings of VPNs, it helps to understand how the Internet works. VPNs, like standard browser connections, rely on the Internet to deliver you the various content you search for and/or produce for an audience.  Yet, the Internet is more than just the online marketplace of ideas.

The Internet is the engine driving the Internet of Things ( a.k.a., “IoT”—wireless toys that keep us connected). It’s the online, big-box superstore that lets us buy anything you can imagine. It’s the social media hub that connects us with humor, politics, career opportunities, education and endless entertainment options.

But at its core, the Internet is a collection of servers around the world that store data like blogs and websites, and it shares this data (including your IP address) with users over an open network. This open (read unsecure) network can unfortunately be intercepted by hackers and government agents, if you aren’t careful.   That’s where VPNs come in.

Is my Personal Data Really Vulnerable?

When you visit your favorite websites, you type in the company or service name into the URL bar.  A domain like Youtube.com is the easily-remembered address for accessing their site—a nickname for what a server uses to translate their custom Internet Protocol (IP) address (which looks like this: 199.223.232.0). 

Every website on the Internet has an IP address.  Likewise, as a customer of your Internet Service Provider (the company you pay to get online), you are assigned an IP address that identifies your browsing activity and location. 

Billions of website servers talk to each other all the time, sharing stored cookies, demographics, stats and personal info amongst each other— which can all be snatched up by hackers carrying wide nets.  

Want to protect your privacy from wandering eyes?  Try using a VPN to camouflage or “mask” your IP address— similar to the way Twitter or Amazon hide their IP addresses with domain names. 

VPNs even go a step further than a simple ISP masking, because they also encrypt all your data and browsing history— so it’s like you were never online in the first place.  It’s a neat little magic trick.

How Does the Internet Work Without a VPN?

A standard Internet query goes like this: you search for something in your browser (say “vintage cars”), and your computer sends a request via the Wide Area Network known as the Internet. 

It sends your search keywords (along with your IP address and other personal data) to the server that’s housing the website (e.g., VintageAwesomeCars.biz).  The server for Vintageawesomecars.biz reads your request, translates it, and sends the information back out into the Internet, and eventually loads the website on your device’s browser.

During this process, your personal information is broadcasted, unprotected and potentially hackable— allowing others to see who you are, where you are and what you are searching online.

Still confused?

Try visualizing the Internet as the wide-open sky. 

Now picture yourself, the Internet user, parachuting through that big blue sky, gliding along, steering toward a given website.  Sounds pleasant enough. So, what’s wrong with the standard parachute scenario?

  • It’s visible— you can be seen by anyone who wants to see you (your IP address and location).
  • It’s vulnerable— hackers can compromise your unencrypted data (passwords, bank info, webcam signal), tearing a hole in your parachute. 
  • It’s unsecure—your parachute is exposed to government spies (emails, Tweets, browsing history) and missiles could be headed your way.  Better get ready for a crash landing!

Traveling through the Internet with only a parachute is like blasting your personal data to the entire open sky of the Internet, as shown above.  It’s the least secure way to connect two servers.

Luckily, there’s a better way to travel. 

How Does the Internet work WITH a VPN?

Now that you know the dangers of travelling with just a parachute, consider the power of a VPN.

Using a VPN is like travelling through the Internet in a in a military-grade stealth bomber.  

Using a VPN “Stealth Bomber” allows you to:

  • Travel through the Internet without being detected by hackers and government radars.
  • Blast open any firewalls of censorship.
  • Rocket past any regional content restrictions for your favorite streaming content.
  • Take your stealth aircraft with you on the go.
  • Keep your important passengers, like business and financial data, anonymous and safe.

Instead of beaming your personal data openly over the Internet like a standard connection, the VPN intercepts your private data and encrypts it before your ISP or anyone can see it, and THEN sends it anonymously to your favorite website’s server. 

It also acts as a powerful incoming firewall, providing a robust barrier between your private connection to the VPN and the unsecure Internet servers.  The VPN captures the website server’s translated info before it gets back to you, and transmits it to you after encrypting and decrypting the data for security.

What Does Encryption Do for Privacy?

Encryption is incredibly important for privacy and security.  Banks, governments, universities, nonprofits and credit card agencies all rely on state-of-the-art encryption protocols to keep your data safe.  VPNs utilize the same encryption tech—and sometimes even stronger protocols.

Put simply, encryption is a process for anonymizing data with a difficult-to-break code sequence so that only a computer with the right permissions (and decoding software) can read and access it. 

When you encrypt emails, files, social media profiles and the like, you do so with and encryption key, which is the only accepted computation that will decrypt the encrypted code.

Sophisticated encryption protocols like those used by VPNs take the security to new levels beyond simple encryption keys or passwords.  In other words, it’s not as simple as your computer and the VPN client each having the right key. 

What Are VPN Security Protocols?

When you download a VPN’s plugin or software, you’re “tunneling” your information through a secure pipeline.   VPNs use sophisticated security protocols like those used by governments and banks to protect your important personal data. These protocols define how the VPN client manages data, and keeps out unauthorized users like hackers and spies. 

Here’s a look at the most common security protocols:

  • SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol). This is a Microsoft protocol whose connection is established with some SSL/TLS encryption.  These are standard and tough protocols used by most VPNs, engineered on symmetric-key cryptography (a fancy word for code-making).
  • L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol). This is a combo of the of PPTP and the Layer 2 protocols. The synthesis of these two creates a secure connection on either end of your data tunnel.  There are reports of the American government’s ability to break this protocol and therefore see what kind of data (or browsing history) is being transmitted— so many VPNs avoid this protocol.
  • PPTP (Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol). This is an old standby. Fairly well-known and one of the originals, designed by Microsoft. As such, it works well on older computers, especially Windows-based desktops and laptops.  Although reliable in function, the level of protection it offers is outdated and therefore not state-of-the-art.If your VPN gives you a choice among several different protocols, don’t use this one as your first bet.
  • OpenVPN. This takes what’s best in the aforementioned protocols, while leaving off their deficits. In many ways, it’s a wholesale improvement on every protocol created to date. It’s based on SSL/TLS encryption, but it’s an open-source, which means it’s continually being worked on by well-qualified developers from around the world who are passionate about security.  One of the most reliable and adaptable protocols in use today.
  • Secure Shell (SSH): SSH creates both the standard VPN tunnel and the overall encryption cryptography. In this model, the data itself is not encrypted, but the tunnel it travels through is. The data between the two ends of the tunnel flow through these encrypted ports. Incidentally, SSH tunnels are what your VPN relies on when overcoming government censorship filters for various content portals.  Your government may try to block you from a given port that handles certain secure web domains, so all of those domains in a series are blocked in a sweeping content ban.  Your SSH redirects that blocked port to another one, which allows the bypass to work on a kind of proxy system.

What Can VPNs Help Me Do Online?

Now that you know a bit more about how VPNs work what they do, let’s take a look at what they can help you do to improve your online experience.

Using the third-party security encryption described above, a VPN can help you:

  • Protect your banking and financial info.
  • Secure your online communication (e.g., texts, Skype, Facetime, emails, etc.)
  • Protect private and proprietary business info, patents, intellectual property, etc.
  • Unblock regionally-restricted entertainment content like Netflix or Hulu.
  • Provide access to news stories blocked by government censors.
  • Safeguard your data when using unsecure public WiFi.
  • Protect government or corporate security and privacy for remote workers. 
  • Anonymize journalists to bypass censorship laws that prevent reporting the truth. 
  • Encrypt your data to serve as an added firewall that helps antivirus protection work better.

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