What is a VPN?

In an age when data breaches have become a universal challenge facing websites and networks of all sizes, affecting millions and sometimes even hundreds of millions of users at a time and costing business millions of dollars to address, internet privacy has become a more urgent issue than ever.

One of the most important developments in privacy, both for private individuals and businesses, has been the Virtual Private Network or VPN. VPNs are simple, elegant privacy solutions that make the internet safer for their users by making it harder for hackers and cybercriminals to compromise their systems and providing more anonymity and freedom while browsing. Here, we’ll provide an overview of VPNs, including how they work, what kinds of protection they provide and a typical range of costs.

How Does a VPN Work?

Every device, when connecting to the internet, has a unique address rather like a phone number or street address, but for the user’s smartphone, tablet, or computer. This is called an Internet Provider or IP address. It’s tied to whoever is paying for internet access at the user’s location, and it identifies exactly where that location is. In normal circumstances, without the use of encryption, the unique IP address associated with each login is public information, fairly easy to access for someone who knows how and just as easily used to recognize and trace someone’s online activity. That information, in turn, can be exploited for the purpose of hacking your computer, among other things. Given the amount of time that many of us spend working, playing and doing business online and the volumes of personal information going out over many an internet connection, it’s more than understandable that you might not want just anyone to be able to look up your IP address. This is where Virtual Private Networks or VPNs come in. A VPN installs encryption software on your device that provides a secure connection to an external server, which sends traffic from your device to the internet. This arrangement is designed to hide your IP address from prying online eyes. There are a few basic steps a VPN goes through to encrypt your data, transmit it to the internet and then have the internet transmit data back to you. VPN software, usually called a VPN client, first encrypts the data on the user’s device. The VPN client then sends the data to a VPN server, which decrypts it and sends the data to the internet, requesting a reply meant for the user. When the reply arrives, the VPN server encrypts the data again and forwards it to the user, and the VPN client on the device decrypts the data to make it usable. It’s important to remember that while a VPN provides additional protection, it doesn’t totally guarantee anonymity.

  • A VPN provides the most security when you’re using it to connect to sites that use the modern secure hypertext protocol. That may sound a bit technical, but what it means is that if the site’s address in your browser starts with HTTPS instead of just HTTP, that site has been designed with extra security in mind. On an HTTPS site, your VPN will provide what’s called “end-to-end encryption,” fully protecting your anonymity at every step in transmitting information from your device to the host of the website you’re accessing. Fortunately, most of the Internet is converting to HTTPS as the new standard.

Web browsers can sometimes “leak” private information — for example, through automatically integrated plug-ins like WebGL and WebRTC, which are used to increase the efficiency of conferencing apps and programs like Skype, Discord and Google Hangouts — that can be used to identify your browser settings and profile your online activity. Some VPNs protect against this, but not all of them do. The good news is that this information isn’t nearly as easy to access or exploit for other people as simply leaving your IP address in public view, so in most cases, your VPN will still preserve your anonymity quite effectively. If you want to ensure that your security is at its best, it’s worthwhile to check for specific kinds of browser leaks and make sure that any VPN you’re considering can specifically address them.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

There are several ways in which keeping your IP address from public view can enhance the internet experience. A VPN provides better security, it offers more privacy and it enables more freedom of access to what the internet has to offer.

Better online security

The kind of security a VPN provides is on the way from being a luxury to becoming a necessity on the modern internet. While directly hacking a computer using its IP address is difficult today, thanks to the various firewalls employed by service providers, an IP address can still be used as a starting point to access location data that can then be used to dig up further sensitive information. What makes a VPN effective is that it encrypts your internet traffic before it reaches any server outside of your device. As that encrypted traffic passes through the steps described in the above section, which can be thought of as a kind of VPN tunnel, it becomes considerably more difficult for outside parties — including governments and hackers — to access your data and location.

Added privacy online

The location data provided by an IP address allows other people to link your identity and locale with your internet activity. When your address is publicly accessible, your internet provider and, often, governments or other online actors can see everything you do online. There are plenty of ways in which that information can be used to assemble a profile of you at a disconcerting level of detail. With a VPN, online activity can only be traced back to the VPN server, which won’t disclose and often does not track actions taken through the server.

More freedom of access

There are often restrictions on access to the internet that vary from one country to another, or restrictions on which content can be viewed from which country, that can limit a user’s ability to access certain sites online. Travelers might find themselves in a place where the internet is censored in various ways (“political” media and social media are common targets); or they may find they no longer have access to their favorite media streams at their current location for reasons other than censorship (Hulu isn’t normally viewable outside the United States or Japan, for instance). A VPN lets users connect to servers in any country as if physically present there.

How Much Does a VPN Cost?

The internet is awash in free services calling themselves VPNs. For the most part, these are best avoided. As per the old adage “you get what you pay for,” most of these services simply aren’t safe to use. An effective VPN is kept rigorously up to date by the people operating it, using the latest standards and best practices and patching potential vulnerabilities. Free services generally do not do this, and some of them get their bandwidth from inherently not secure peer-to-peer operating models. Truly functional VPNs will typically come with at least some associated costs. It’s best to avoid locking yourself into a seemingly cheap “lifetime” contract with a VPN, as there’s no guarantee of the needed quality always being there, so a quality, secure VPN will typically involve some monthly or annual expense. Month-to-month pricing for the leading VPN services ranges from $5-$12. Annual pricing ranges from $35-$100 per year — sometimes this kind of pricing is structured as a biennial contract. Whatever the cost of truly quality VPN, it’s a worthwhile expense to enjoy true security, choice and privacy on today’s internet.

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