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What Is A VPN and Why Do You Need One?

Introduction

Dear Reader – does everyone really need a VPN?

Short answer: Yes! At least in our opinion, most people do – and there are some very good reasons for that which we’ll outline below.

But, most of those reasons are not necessarily what you might think . The marketing hype behind VPNs make it seem like the sky is falling. But that is only designed to induce you to buy something that you might never otherwise purchase.

tl;dr – For those of you who just want us to get to the point, here’s a summary of what we’re going to discuss in some detail below:

  • Everyone needs a VPN
  • But not for the scary reasons most other VPN providers state – they only do that to induce you to panic buy on their site immediately
  • A private VPN server is better than a shared VPN service (which is why we started this business in the first place)

So, with all that out of the way – and now that you know what this article is about – lets get into the nitty gritty details.

What is a VPN?

Wikipedia has a nice summary of what a VPN is:

A virtual private network (VPN) 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.

ummm…so what does that mean in less gobbly-gook terms?

Well, lets start with how VPNs were typically used in the past.

In the not-so-recent past, VPNs were used primarily by companies.

A company has lots of reasons for keeping their network operations off the internet. But the internet is also a powerful and relatively cheap communication mechanism.

Thus, a way was needed for users who were not inside the company to use the internet to attach a personal computer/laptop to the company’s network and let it act as if it was physically present at the company’s network location.

Which is exactly what a VPN was designed to do.

It connects two networks in a safe, private manner, using a public un-trusted network like the internet as the intermediary communication mechanism.

Here’s a quick down-and-dirty image I whipped up in Excel to illustrate the data flow:

I then gave this image to a designer and they came up with this – its much a better looking image, isn’t it?

Before the internet was a big thing, the only way to achieve this kind of secure remote connection to an internal company network was very (very) expensive private data lines or phone calls via modems. VPNs over the internet was a massive cost savings to companies and helped ushered in the age of remote workers and flex time.

Today’s Consumer Level VPNs

So, how does that work for the consumer level VPNs that you see many companies selling (or giving away for free) today? Well, that data flow would look something like this:

For those of you who looked closely at the image, you’re probably going “say what now?”

Basically, you’re using the internet to connect to … the internet.

Why would you do that? On the surface it doesn’t make much sense, right? Why in the world would you connect to the internet, just to re-connect to it at slower speeds?

The True Purpose of the VPN Tunnel

In the images above, the entire section that is labelled VPN TUNNEL is encrypted. If you ask yourself who cannot see inside that encrypted connection, you’ll have the answer to the question “What is the purpose of the VPN” that you’re considering purchasing.

The people who cannot see inside that tunnel are:

  • Your ISP – people like Comcast, ATT, China Telecom and others who will want to take your data for nefarious uses or marketing purposes.
  • Bad Actors – you never can tell if a hacker is snooping on your network. For the entire section of the VPN TUNNEL, they are blind (unless they are in your computer itself then you’re just out of luck since they already own you).

A side effect of this tunnel is that, to anyone on the other side of it that might be monitoring you, it looks like your location is at the end of the tunnel, not the beginning of it. And they see the IP address of the computer at the end of the tunnel, not the beginning of it.

In other words, it looks like you are in a completely different location using a completely different network/id.

This provides some level of security and a modicum of privacy. And, in some instances it might allow you access to data and resources not available in your own country.

What the VPN Tunnel Does NOT Do

Despite what many VPN companies scary marketing messages might suggest, a VPN:

  • Does not make you anonymous or invisible to websites
  • Does not necessarily protect your privacy

You can read more about these misconceptions in our article: What VPNs Protect and What They Don’t.

And these days, VPN tunnels are simply encrypting data that is already encrypted via HTTPS or TLS (as evidenced by the “lock” icon in your browser address bar.)

Which means that VPN tunnels are only protecting you against data that is accidentally (or deliberately) not encrypted.

Why Do You Still Need A VPN?

After reading all of the above, you might think “pshft…why do I need this thing?”

If you use a mobile device and you’re connecting to the internet using Cellular then, yes, you should connect over a VPN.

The reason for that is simple – the Cellular network companies (ATT, VERIZON, TMOBILE, CHINA TELCOM etc.) are monitoring your connection. They might not be monitoring your CONTENT (because of HTTPS or TLS encryption) but they can still tell which websites you’re visiting as well as infer some additional data from your browsing activities. They can then marry that data with data from companies like Facebook and Google and build very very detailed and highly personal profiles of your habits. Using a VPN denies one of the key aggregators of data from collecting yours!

If you’re a traveler (especially one in a foreign country) OR if you regularly use public or semi-public wifi connections, you want a VPN. This provides additional protections from the snoops that are almost guaranteed to be on the first leg of your internet connection (the hotel wifi network, free wifi networks at Starbucks or the local coffee shop or even your foreign-office corporate network).

Or, if you’re in your workplace and need to access blocked resources while using the company network, a VPN might get you around the network blocks.

And, sometimes you might be able to get to resources that are locked by geography (such as streaming services). Though, these days, those vendors (such as Netflix) are wising up to VPNs and simply not allowing you to access their service via known VPN service providers.

Finally, developers of apps and services do make mistakes. This means that they sometimes accidentally use encryption that is easily broken or forget to transmit data on an encrypted channel (HTTPS or TLS). Even large companies such as Microsoft sometimes release products with weak encryption or broken encryption. In cases where mistakes are made by a developer a VPN can prevent your data from being inadvertently revealed on public wireless networks or other low-trust networked environments.

Why Do You Need a Private VPN Server?

We believe that, from both a security and privacy perspective, a private server is better. Read all the reasons in our article that is aptly titled The Advantages of a Private VPN Server.

A summary of that article is this:

  • Better Security
  • Lower costs when you have multiple users (but slightly higher costs with a single user)
  • More privacy from firms looking to sell your browsing data
  • Less likely that you might be blocked from accessing a resource since your server might not be on the list of “well known” vpn services.

Wrap Up

So there you have it. Do you REALLY REALLY REALLY need a VPN? Answer: Not Necessarily.

Should you get one anyway? Yes, because it layers an additional level of protection on your internet connection. And these days, you simply can’t get enough of that.

And, if you’re a frequent traveler or using public or semi-public wifi connections on a regular basis, you definitely should get one.

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