A VPN or virtual private network is a form private wide area network (WAN) that connects two or more locations over the public Internet or over another private network, such as MPLS. A VPN can be as simple as a connection to the Internet and as complex as a remote access network used to securely connect thousands of employees to a company intranet over the public Internet.
In this article, the focus is on simple VPN services typically used by individuals and small businesses to securely connect to the Internet.
In its most basic implementation, a VPN consists of a user’s computing device and a VPN server. The VPN serves two fundamental functions:
VPNs are used for one or more reasons including privacy, data protection from hackers, circumventing censorship, and by-passing geo-restrictions.
The convenience and affordability of the Internet comes with it many forms of intrusion into our lives. Everything we say, everything we do and everywhere we go is subject to monitoring by individuals, governments, corporations, and organizations for a myriad of purposes. The recent leaking of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hacking tools by WikiLeaks – #wikileaksciadump – is another reminder that Internet users should take special precautions to protect their privacy. While the CIA is unlikely to target ordinary individuals, the availability of these resources in the public domain will arm cyberpunks with the tools to cause harm to unsuspecting individuals.
Below are some examples of why Internet users resort to using VPNs
Online harassment is increasingly becoming a cause for concern. In a few cases, what starts as disagreements online can lead to harassment and may ultimately end in physical stalking and even murder. In the USA, there has been a rampant increase in cases of online harassment and even death threats since Mr. Donald Trump became president. The President’s overzealous supporters have targeted journalists, individuals and people of certain religious faiths.
One recommendation to guarantee safety in the face of online harassment is the use of pseudonyms. But for a pseudonym to be effective, one must separate their online identity with their true identity, something that is oftentimes impractical to implement. The use of a VPN ensures that your true identity is not easily traceable.
More and more companies are playing “big brother” on their employees by monitoring everything their employees do online, including on their private devices connected to a company network or Wi-Fi. Even for the hardest working and rule abiding of employees, there is always the need to make that quick personal email to a child, spouse or parent or a quick research online for something important and personal without somebody else snooping. By turning on your VPN on your smart phone or personal computing device while communicating from the company Wi-Fi, you can have peace of mind that your private communications are what they are supposed to be, private.
In repressive countries, citizens that are opposed to the government live under constant fear of being monitored online. In extreme cases, writing against dictators online could lead to incarceration or even grievous bodily harm.
A number of African countries have acquired cyber-surveillance technology, including deep packet inspection tools from China under the guise of combating cyber threats to national security. And yet for most of these countries, national security threat is synonymous with free speech. Before his defeat in a presidential election in December, 2016, the former president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, went as far as banning the Internet and International phone calls all together to prevent opposition parties from mobilizing against him.
For those citizens who are at risk for being monitored online, a VPN is a simple and inexpensive solution.
In Europe and the USA, governments enact regulations requiring ISPs to share user activities online in the fight against terrorism. While most citizens sympathize with their governments’ fight against terrorism, nobody wants their communications to be indiscriminately monitored. This has been one of the driving factors for the use of VPNs.
Many journalists take advantage of VPN services when communicating with their news sources.
There are also some who take advantage of VPN technology for more nefarious uses. The movie and music industries are losing huge sums of money because of the illegal sharing of movies and music. Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and other movie and music associations routinely clamp down on perpetrators by pretending to be sharers or by eavesdropping on ISPs. By using VPN, many sharers have avoided being caught, or facing prosecution or civil lawsuits.
When using a VPN, the provider can see your data and you have to operate on the assumption that they will not leak your information. It is important to check that your VPN provider does not keep logs of user activities. If the provider is reputable and they assure you that they don’t keep such logs, it is reasonable to assume that they are not making this up. However, if they are required by law to monitor activities in real time, they will have comply.
For added security, some users sign up to VPNs anonymously using bit coins so that their true identity will never be known, even to the VPN provider.
For the ultimate in privacy, some users have resorted to using a combination of VPN and TOR (The Onion Router). TOR is an implementation of the so-called onion routing, where your signals are encrypted and then randomly bounced on many geographically dispersed servers making it impossible to trace signals back to the source. But it is plausible that if you use TOR, your VPN or ISP can be suspicious of your activities. Drug dealers, pedophiles, cyber-punks and terrorists are also known to rely on TOR for their privacy.
For a list of VPN providers in your area and their pricing options, search GeoQuote