What is a VPN and how does it work?

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What is a VPN

Virtual Private Networks have suddenly become a huge part of online life across the world. When used properly, these tools can guarantee privacy and keep data safe and sound – including your browsing history, emails, torrents, and streaming content.

But before you start selecting VPNs and enjoying the benefits they bring, it’s vital to understand more about what they are, and how they work. That way, you’ll be in a great position to choose the right provider and to use your VPN in a way that maximizes your privacy.

Also ReadThe best apps for secure, private messaging

What are VPNs: A brief introduction

The name “Virtual Private Networks” contains a few clues about what these tools do.

Firstly, they are “virtual”. This means that they create a simulation of a private network, using the infrastructure of the conventional web.

Secondly, they are “private”. When they create virtual networks, VPNs use techniques like encryption and tunnelling protocols to create a barrier between your data and the rest of the web. So it’s much harder for external agents to detect what you are doing online.

Finally, they are “networks”. VPNs tend to maintain large communities of servers, with locations dotted all over the world. By routing user traffic through these servers, they can change the user’s online location and assign anonymous IP addresses.

Most of the time, VPNs take the form of clients – applications which create an interface between computers or smartphones and the provider’s servers. These clients apply protocols to create tunnels, which are at the core of any Virtual Private Network.

Case study: Mullvad VPN

It might be easier to describe this system via a case study, so here goes. Mullvad VPN is a leading provider (you can check out a Mullvad VPN review here if you want more info: https://vpnpro.com/vpn-reviews/mullvad-vpn-review/).

In this case, the provider uses a protocol called OpenVPN (one of the most advanced around), and AES 256-bit encryption to wrap up data in packets that hackers can’t untangle.

Users head to the Mullvad homepage, where they can pay for an account using cryptocurrency, and sign-up anonymously. So they leave no trace of their identity at any stage.

Mullvad operates 282 active servers around the world, in countries as diverse as Australia, Bulgaria, and South Africa. When you fire up the client, you can pick which server you connect to, and your IP address is instantly re-routed to show your location in that country.

How do VPNs work?

Those are the basics, anyway. Let’s dig a little deeper and discuss a few key elements of a good VPN. When you pick a provider you’ll come across these factors, so it pays to know what they refer to.

Encryption

Encryption refers to the way Virtual Private Networks convert unprotected data into packets that are very hard to unwrap. The best AES encryption tools use extremely complex ciphers (algorithms which allow users to encode and decode their data).

Only users with a certain “key” can unpack encrypted data, and these keys are routinely changed every few minutes in most cases.

So far, we aren’t aware of crackers successfully breaking an AES-256 bit cipher, so look out for this specification when choosing a provider.

Servers and speed

VPNs differ dramatically in the size of their server communities and the speeds they deliver. Users can expect some degree of slowdown. In fact, it’s suspicious when speeds aren’t slightly dented. In those cases, poor quality protection could mean that your provider is making no difference at all.

As a general rule, the more servers the better. That way, you’ll be more likely to find a fast connection. More importantly, you’ll have maximum options regarding anonymization.

If you want to use a VPN to work around Netflix geo-blockers, this is absolutely essential. So double check server numbers before paying for anything. Good providers like NordVPN maintain thousands of servers. So why compromise?

Leak protection

Leak protection is another vital consideration. When VPNs change your IP address, they don’t just have to route your traffic through a distant server. They also need to ensure that your original IP details aren’t “leaked” to external observers.

Be careful here. If VPNs don’t explain how they deal with IP or DNS leakage, stay well clear. And be sure to test your IP address after loading up your client. If it hasn’t been changed, it’s time to pick a different provider.

Clients and devices

Good VPNs also offer easy to use clients with plenty of options. For instance, they should come with “kill switches” which cut out your VPN protection if problems arise. And they should offer a choice of protocols, proxy services, and even the chance to limit VPN protection to certain applications.

Additionally, good providers cater to multiple devices and platforms. Look for companies which let you connect with 5 or more devices (especially if you’re buying for a family), and apps for Android and iOS phones, alongside Windows or Linux.

The difference between free and paid for VPNs

Finally, we need to mention free VPNs. When you come to choose a provider, you’ll almost certainly be tempted by free providers. In some cases, this might work out. But, generally speaking, free VPNs offer a sub-standard service.

Free providers are more likely to leak your IP address, can often incorporate adware or malware into their clients, and offer weaker encryption. So we’d recommend investigating paid-for providers if you’re serious about online privacy.

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