What Is a VPN and How Does It Work?
Simply put, a VPN creates a virtual encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server operated by a VPN service. All your internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, so your data is secure from prying eyes. Best of all, your computer appears to have the IP address of the VPN server, masking your identity and location. When your data reaches the VPN server, it exits onto the public internet. If the site you’re heading to uses HTTPS to secure the connection, you’re still secure. But even if it was intercepted, it’s difficult to trace the data back to you, since it appears to be coming from the VPN server.
To understand the value of a VPN, it helps to think of some specific scenarios in which a VPN might be used. Consider the public Wi-Fi network, perhaps at a coffee shop or airport. Normally, you might connect without a second thought. But do you know who might be watching the traffic on that network? Can you even be sure the Wi-Fi network is legit, or might it operated by a thief who’s after your personal data? Think about the passwords, banking data, credit card numbers, and just plain private information that you transmit every time you go online.
For mobile devices, the situation is a little thornier. Most companies offer VPN apps for Android and iOS, which is great because we use these devices to connect to Wi-Fi all the time. However, VPNs don’t always play nice with cellular connections. That said, it takes some serious effort to intercept cellphone data, although law enforcement or intelligence agencies may have an easier time gaining access to this data, or metadata, through connections with mobile carriers or by using specialized equipment.
What a VPN Won’t Do
We should note that there are multiple ways your behavior can be tracked online—even with a VPN, things like cookies allow web services (Amazon, Google, Facebook, and so on) to track your internet usage even after you’ve left their sites (here’s a handy guide to pruning cookies on your browser.)
It’s worth noting that most VPN services are not philanthropic organizations that operate for the public good. While many are involved in progressive causes, they are all still for-profit organizations. That means that they have their own bills to pay, and they have to respond to subpoenas and warrants from law enforcement. They also have to abide by the laws of the country in which they officially reside.
Protect Yourself With a VPN
When the internet was first being pieced together, there wasn’t much thought given to security or privacy. At first it was just a bunch of shared computers at research institutions, and computing power so limited that any encryption could have made things extremely difficult. If anything, the focus was on openness, not defense.
Today, most of have multiple devices that connect to the web that are vastly more powerful than the top computers of the early days. But the internet hasn’t made a lot of fundamental improvements. Consider that it is only in the past few years that HTTPS has become widespread.
This means that, unfortunately, it is up to individuals to protect themselves. Antivirus apps and password managers go a long way toward keeping you safer, but a VPN is a uniquely powerful tool that you should definitely have in your personal security toolkit, especially in today’s connected world. Whether you opt for a free service or even go all-in with an encrypted router, having some way to encrypt your internet traffic is critically important.