VPN, or a Virtual Private Network, connects computers and other devices using an encrypted connection. This means that all data travelling through such a network is unreadable to anyone who might intercept the data stream, making it as private as it would be if all of the connected devices resided within the walls of a private property (like your home).
In other words if you connect your computer to a VPN, and route all of your online activity through it, this activity can no longer be tracked by your internet service provider or anyone else who might tap into your connection. All that your ISP would see is that you are connecting to the address of a VPN server, but they wouldn’t be able to see which web sites you are opening through that address. And web sites you visit wouldn’t see your home IP address, and with it your general location, but instead the address of the VPN server you are connected through.
The main benefits of this are improved privacy, anonymity, and security. Here is what this means in practice, and why you should have one.
1. Sites you visit would no longer be visible to your ISP or others
Without a VPN your connection to the internet is typically transparent to your Internet Service Provider, meaning that they can (and often do) record which sites you visit. This presents a privacy problem, in so far as someone else can technically know what you do in your private time on the internet. Hackers could potentially tap into your connection and see what sites you are visiting as well, especially if you are on wireless and using weak encryption (like WEP, which can easily be hacked).
Another problem is that the government could, for whatever reason, order the ISP to give up the data and accuse you of wrongdoings. What is illegal isn’t always unethical, and not every government is the same. In some countries it is illegal to visit certain sites at all, and in most countries it is illegal to download a song or an album even if you’ve already purchased the original on a CD. Furthermore, there are many recorded incidents of the entertainment industry descending on a random and sometimes innocent target to make an example of. You don’t want to be next.
Simply enciphering your connection can go a long way towards protecting you from such unwanted scenarios.
2. Sites you visit can’t see who you are, or where you’re from
All web sites record the IP address of their visitors, which gives them the associated location, your ISP, and other data that could help someone trace who you are. If you connect through a VPN you are visiting those sites as that VPN server, not your home computer, meaning that sites only record the IP address and associated data of that VPN. The VPN server stands as a protector between you and the site, giving you greater anonymity.
3. Escaping censorship
Your country’s government might have blocked some sites for political or other reasons so they cannot be visited from your country’s IP addresses at all. VPN servers, however, can reside anywhere in the world, so if you connect through a VPN you are visiting web sites as if you were in that other country. This works the same way as proxies. You simply bypass the censorship.
4. Watch content not available in your country
While this might be a legal gray area, for the same reasons why they bypass censorship, VPNs can also allow you to watch content that has been specifically locked out of your country. For example, only US-based citizens are allowed to watch Hulu.com, but if you connect to a US-based VPN you can watch it too.
I would go on a limb and guess that Hulu, and similar services, have to do the blocking to comply with certain contracts and regulations, but beyond that probably don’t mind the extra international traffic that they might get. These extra users contribute a bit of extra ad impressions after all. Hulu probably wont admit this publicly though.
5. Help prevent the government taking control of the internet
Google is leading the fight for this right now, in face of the ITU talks behind closed doors, which is about various UN countries deciding how the internet should be run. Not only is the ITU an ancient organization, and government politicians typically out of touch with how internet technology works, but it is simply a down right bad idea to give control of the internet to the few biased organizations. It is like giving up control of the civilisation itself.
While attempts to prevent this from happening by using politics, lobbying, and public outcry are laudable, they are far from a guarantee that they will listen. They have the force on their side after all. They don’t necessarily have to comply. They’ll just take it and we’ll have to deal with it.
Or we can encrypt our connections and communications and make it impossible for them to control the free flow of information. They cannot regulate or control what they cannot even read. Best thing they can do is shut the whole thing down, but at that point we’d have revolutions on our hands. It’s happened before.
Encryption is the top weapon in the arsenal of those who wish to keep the internet free, open, and decentralised as it has been from the beginning. The very act of using encryption simultaneously becomes the most powerful democratic vote there is against such regulations and controls, and these governments swear by democracy and following public opinion, right? Tell them what you want. Use encryption. Start by getting a VPN.
6. It’s cheap and easy
This should certainly help convince anyone to give VPNs a go; it is actually not hard to get at all. There are plenty of reputable VPN providers, and they are very easy to set up. Typically all it takes is to sign up, download the software, log in with your username and password, choose the country of your VPN server and connect.
Prices start as low as $7 a month, or even lower when paid a year in advance. Free VPNs exist as well, but their commitment to privacy and security is typically a little lower. Their connection speeds and bandwidth are also limited. For a small fee you can enjoy the same quality and connection speed as your normal connection, but with the added benefits of using a VPN (as described above).
There are also ways to get most of the benefits of a paid VPN for free, but it is a bit harder to set up. Those who already control a Virtual Private Server, or a dedicated server, can set one up for no extra charge by setting up OpenVPN on their servers. Multiple people can then use these servers.
Why not Proxies?
There are some similarities between proxies and VPNs. Both involve routing the connection through a remote server. However, proxies don’t always involve encryption, and typical set ups don’t actually route your entire connection, but only web sites you visit. Most free proxies are also very slow and unreliable, with high downtimes. The level of privacy they offer is also questionable. VPNs are simply a much more robust option.
That’s not to say proxies don’t have their uses. They are a good choice if you quickly want to bypass censorship, and change your exit points quickly and often.
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