The complete beginner’s guide to VPNs
Later this year, the UK is set to become the first country in the world to implement age-verification measures to access adult content on the internet. This move has the support of 88% of UK parents, who believe that there should be greater controls in place to prevent minors from accessing mature content online. But with so many privacy concerns involved in age-verification and a growing distrust of data handling by large companies, the idea of entering your details into a website to stream adult videos has spurred a huge rise in the number of people searching for VPNs.
So, to find out what a VPN is, how they work and how they can offer you the protection you need to surf the web more securely, settle down, get comfy and keep reading.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A network is a connection between devices that allows each device to share data. This can be as simple as the connection between your computer and your router, or as complex as the colossal networks setup by universities and businesses to control who can and cannot access their files and data.
Private networks are those which can only be accessed by specific devices, unlike public networks, which can be connected to by anyone with either little or no restriction. Private networks typically offer much greater security when sending and receiving data.
The main difference between a virtual private network and an ordinary one is that VPNs can be accessed remotely. Whereas a typical private network might require you to log in from a particular location, for example your workplace or university, virtual private networks can be used wherever you are.
How does a VPN work?
To enable their users to browse the internet through a virtual private network rather than an ordinary public network, VPN services use numerous computer servers all around the world to create private connections. Rather than logging on with a connection straight from your device to the internet, your web traffic is sent via a VPN server in an alternate location.
The use of passing through another server is that it obscures your device’s IP address – a unique identifier that can be used to track your browsing history and other things online. Instead of your activities showing up as coming from your own personal IP address, which also gives away your location, you can connect to a server in any country your provider offers and use its IP address instead.
That means that when you’re browsing, websites and advertisers don’t know your real location and can’t track your activities. VPNs also add heavy end-to-end encryption to your data, so as well as keeping things anonymous, you’re also afforded a high level of privacy as you go about your browsing.
End-to-end encryption means that everything you send and receive online can only be viewed and understood by you and the person or site it’s intended for. Without it, there’s a risk that your personal data could be exposed in the event that your connection is hacked. With it, data becomes indecipherable nonsense to everyone but the intended recipient.
Different VPN services will sometimes offer different encryption protocols, but they’re always a step up from poorly secured and unsecured public networks.
Why use a VPN?
Privacy & security
VPNs are typically used as tools for anonymity and data security, due to their ability to obscure your location and device ID, and the strong encryption that they add to your data.
A popular use for virtual private networks is that of securing Wi-Fi in places like airports and coffee shops, where large numbers of people are logging on to unsecured connections. These kinds of networks have become prime targets for cybercriminals, who can easily hack them and view things like credit card and address details that are being exchanged.
By connecting via a VPN rather than going in unprotected, users can ensure that even if the main network itself is compromised, their individual connection will still be obscured under a layer of extra encryption.
Additionally, steering clear of online advertisers is a top choice. If you’re fed up of being haunted around the internet by targeted ads for items you once browsed many months ago, browsing under the cover of a VPN could be the ideal way to stop advertisers from knowing your habits and preferences without having to log off completely.
Another common reason for using a VPN is getting around geo-restrictions, which can appear in everything from news content to videos. For instance, have you ever looked up a song on YouTube, found the video and then been greeted by a message saying that is wasn’t available in your country? That’s geo-restriction.
Depending on how much you want to access particular content, this can be very annoying. But with a VPN at your side, it’s surprisingly easy to circumvent.
As we discussed before, VPN users can cheat the system and make it appear as if they’re connecting to the internet from a different location by replacing their actual IP address with one from their VPN network. This means that you can access the internet from England but give the appearance that you’re connecting from the USA or France, and in doing so, bypass those irritating content filters.
Better yet, changing your apparent location can also help you to save money. For example, if you live in Dublin and want to spend your summer holiday in Spain, buying your ticket from Dublin to the Costa del Sol could be less expensive if you appear to be connecting to the internet from within Spain.
Being able to fool a website into thinking you’re not where you say you are is also why Google searches for VPNs have doubled since the UK announced new age-verification measures coming in July. Why? Because VPNs can be used to trick a website into thinking you’re connecting from a country where the new age-verification rules don’t apply.
VPNs are still seen by some as pretty novel. But with so many online hazards now posing a risk to security as well as your personal information, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to surf the web safely without one.
Whether it’s for protecting your credit card details when using an insecure connection or making it look like you’re surfing the web from another part of the world, using a VPN has become as advocated for and indispensable as using a firewall or antivirus.
James Murray is a professional researcher and copywriter, specialising in data security and breaking tech news. With internet security and data leak potential as relevant an issue as it is today, he’s always hunting for new ways web users can make the most of staying safe online.