When did you last try to watch a movie on Netflix, listen to a song on Spotify or Audiomack, or even try to use a social network like Twitter and ended up finding out it wasn’t available for your location (country)?
But that’s not all, you randomly stumble on your friend who lives few blocks away and find them enjoying/using the content or services that you earlier saw were not available for your country and you end up confused as hell, wondering if this was some sort of segregation.
Note: If you live in the West, chances are this might not sound very familiar/relatable as most of the aforementioned services are indigenous to you but if you’re from the developing/less advanced parts of the world, then I trust you’re already nodding your head in agreement to how relatable that was.
In this post, I’ll try to give you a basic, non-technical introduction to Virtual Private Networks (VPN), a tool/service that allows you to establish/connect to a private encrypted network, through which you can access the public internet.
A virtual private network extends a private network across a public network and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network — Wikipedia
The above definition is fairly technical and paints a reasonable picture of what VPNs really are.
How does it work?
Under normal circumstances, to connect to and access the internet, your device (mobile/desktop) often connects to your Internet Service Provider’s Network (ISP) first, and your ISP in turn routes this connection to the internet.
Now, because of the direct nature of this connection, your internet traffic can be said to be open and unencrypted, as there is no barrier or shield between your network and your ISP’s network through which you connect to the internet.
Thus, third parties (your ISP, government, Ad companies etc.) are able to track your activities online, using the information they’re able to extract. Services like the ones mentioned at the beginning of the story are able to set geo-specific restrictions on their contents, and governments (through ISPs) are also able to restrict citizens’ access to services, again based on the collected data.
Note: The Internet is considered a public network.
VPNs to the rescue!
Having understood how your internet connection works without VPNs, it is now time to understand how VPNs help you.
A VPN essentially hides your real IP address by routing your connection through specially configured tunnels on remote servers (also known as VPN servers) maintained and run by a VPN host. This way, you no longer connect directly to your ISP, rather, the VPN stands as a proxy between you (your internet traffic) and the ISP’s network which routes to the internet, thus, making it more difficult for third parties to track your activities online as your internet traffic is now disguised and appears to be originating from your VPN servers.
You must have guessed the first and most popular benefit already:
Access to regional content: Now, because most of these VPN servers which you connect to are located in numerous countries, your internet traffic would obviously appear as if it were truly originating from those locations (countries). This way, when you’re confronted with location-based access restrictions to content and services, you can always connect to a VPN server located in a country/location where it is accessible.
Remember the story in the beginning, that friend was definitely using a VPN. Now you know :)
Encryption: A VPN routes your traffic through specially designed complex tunnels, and applies different levels of encryption to your traffic data in real time, making it hard for third parties or cyber criminals to get hold and make meaning of your data.
Secure Data Transfer: Corporate bodies and organizations makes heavy use of VPNs as it allows secured, restricted access and movement of data within and outside the organization. Companies often have a managed network, whereby employee access to the network(s) and its data are restricted solely through virtual private networks.
Note: This list is non exhaustive and could go on and on…..
If you’re unsure of what VPN service to settle for, then check out our recommended VPN. With this VPN, if someone ever sends you a Grabify link, you can rest assured it will hide your true IP address and location, and help you stay secure online.
This post was solely aimed at giving you a non-technical introduction to what virtual private networks are and when they could come in handy. If you ended up fascinated and would love to get more in-depth knowledge of how this piece of technology works at the core, then the Wikipedia VPN entry would definitely be a good place to get you up and running.