What is a VPN, and do I need one?

VPNs are all the rage these days. Those who have been around a while will know them as the faff you had to undertake to connect to your corporate network whilst on the move in the early 2000’s, but they’re increasingly being deployed by personal users to protect their day to day traffic.

So what is a VPN?

VPN is short for ‘Virtual Private Network’ and when configured correctly, it creates an encrypted connect between your machine and the machine that is running the VPN software, allowing you to communicate over that connection securely through the otherwise wide open internet.

Because all of your internet traffic is then passed through this secure connection to the machine on the other side, that machine effectively becomes your ‘face’ on the internet – the location, and IP address, of your connection to the world. This means that your real location is effectively masked from anyone who might be monitoring you or controlling your internet access based on your location.

This masking is useful for many things, from accessing location-restricted content to hiding your true location whilst you browse the internet. With the advent of ‘log free’ VPN providers, who promise not to log any of your activities whilst you use their service, it’s also possible to be ‘anonymous’ on the internet, with no real logs tying you to the activity you just undertook.

Modern Primary VPN uses

Privacy

This is what most people will be worried about when they’re looking for a VPN, and is the reason that virtually all VPN providers these days offer a ‘no logs’ element to their service. By connecting to a third party provider, and them routing your traffic through one of multiple possible exit servers, your online activities effectively become anonymous because your traffic, along with all the other service’s users, come from a different IP than the one that is associated with your physical location.

Geofencing bypass

Have you ever found yourself wanting to watch something on Netflix, only to find that it’s only on the US version of the streaming service? Or wanted to watch programmes from your UK subscription whilst abroad only to be told that it’s not available in your territory?

This is because of content licensing and distribution rights, and not something we need to go into here; the point is, it’s annoying when you can’t get your Walking Dead catchup fix.

A VPN will allow you to choose the country your traffic exits at, effectively making you appear to be in the UK – and able to watch UK Netflix content – even if your in the middle of Mexico.

Note: content providers actively seek to identify and block VPN providers for this reason, so your mileage will definitely vary.

Secure connections to networks

The ‘original’ usage for VPN, you don’t really have to use it to protect your personal internet traffic…it still has a perfectly valid use in creating secure connections to internal networks over otherwise insecure connections (aka, The Internet). It’s worth noting that a VPN in this instance is different to what you’re probably reading about in the news as these VPNs are configured by individual companies for their own networks, rather than to protect personal identities and anonymise traffic.

Providing a secure connection on public wifi

Wifi is everywhere these days, and to make it as easy to connect as possible, a lot of Wifi networks in public places are not secured by a password. This makes connectivity easier, but it also means your connection is not secured on that network, and anyone could ‘sniff’ your data with readily available downloadable tools simply by being connected to the same network as you.

In short, public WiFi is not to be trusted, and a VPN is a must here – it will secure all of your traffic between your computer and the internet at large, protecting an otherwise completely open WiFi connection.

 

Whilst not nearly as common a usage, primarily because it goes against the concept of anonymisation, VPNs can also be used to provide a static IP for accessing systems that require such things, which is incredibly useful when most consumer-grade (and many business-focused) broadband connections do not offer a static IP by default (or often at all), and you will never know the IP of your next random public Wifi until you connect to it.

In such circumstances, the right VPN solution will give you a consistent fixed IP for you to connect to from wherever, allowing access to your locked down systems and networks.

So what next?

We recently set up our own VPN after experimenting with a few of the more common providers, and we’re writing up the steps we took in that process for our next blog post, including the reasons we decided to set up our own rather than use a provider.

In the meantime, have a think about why you might want a VPN – are you interested in hiding your activities from illicit monitoring, do you want to circumvent some location-based restrictions to watch your favourite shows on the move, or are you a frequent user of open Wifi and don’t like the thought of your traffic being unsecured?

Knowing what you want it for will help you pick the right solution for your needs.

Posted:
Wed 25th Oct 2017
at 10:37

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