VPN’s have existed for quite a while, but there hasn’t been a need for the average person to use one. That is, until you read these 5 reasons to use a VPN.
1. Encryption & Integrity
For the modern use of a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, encryption and integrity are probably the most used features of a VPN. Whenever you use a VPN, all of your network traffic is routed through the VPN server. Most of the time, that connection is secured with very strong encryption(the amount of years it takes to crack has a ridiculous amount of zeros). That encryption ensures that anyone snooping on your local network can’t see what you’re doing or what websites your visiting. This is especially true if you’re on an unsecured Wi-Fi network(one that doesn’t require a password to connect to).
When on an unsecured network, all of your internet traffic is sent to the router unencrypted, meaning anyone with the proper equipment can see where your packets are going, and even modify the contents of the website you’re on. Now, HTTPS ensures that hackers can’t see or modify what you’re doing online, but it doesn’t stop them from looking at where you’re going online. Most VPN’s also provide data integrity. While encryption ensures that hackers can’t see what you’re doing, it doesn’t stop them from modifying the encrypted information. Integrity ensures that the data received is the same data sent. This means that even if an attacker were trying to modify whatever you’re doing, it would be detected by the VPN software.
A Note About the Encryption
While all information between you and the VPN server is encrypted, it doesn’t help with anything beyond the VPN server. This means that if someone is listening to the traffic going out of the VPN server, they can see and/or modify the information there. As long as the information is modified before it reaches the VPN server, the server has no way of knowing the data has been changed. This also means that if your VPN provider keeps logs, they can still see who is going where, and sell this information. This is particularly true with “free” VPN services. Always know how a company makes money, because you may end up being the product and not it’s user.
2. IP Address & Geo-restrictions
Since all of your traffic is sent through the VPN server, you can use this to bypass geo-restrictions on content. All websites you visit can only see the IP address of the VPN server’s internet connection, and not yours. Be warned that there is such thing as IP leaking through a VPN, so make sure to use a trustworthy provider who knows what they’re doing. However, if done properly, a VPN can increase your privacy by masking your real IP address. If using a popular VPN provider, you also increase your anonymity because many customers are put behind the same IP address. The more people there are for each IP address, the harder it is to distinguish individual users from that IP(assuming you’re not logged in to the website in question, in which case it’s pretty easy to figure out who you are).
Hiding your IP address has the added bonus of bypassing IP-based geo-blocks. Since this became popular, many streaming services outright ban all access to their site from VPN servers. That being said, there are VPN providers that offer streaming as a selling point, and have ways to get around those VPN server blocks(I don’t know exactly how, but I assume it has something to do with changing IPs every now and then).
3. Bypassing Censorship & The Lack of Net Neutrality
A VPN can also be used to access websites which are restricted, or slowed down, at the local network level. This is true in the case of many schools, and even some workplaces. Since all data is sent in an encrypted form to the VPN server, the local network firewall can’t detect(and therefore can’t block) which websites you are visiting. Of course, the firewall can just block all VPN’s, but luckily deep packet inspection isn’t that widespread in the majority of networks(yet). On top of bypassing website restrictions, using a VPN also fights ISP’s which wish to throttle your connection to certain websites.
A Bit About Net Neutrality
Warning: Rant Alert!!!
Up until recently, Internet Service Providers(i.e. ISP’s) had to serve all websites at the same speed. This ensured that they didn’t favor one website over another, which is a problem if your ISP provides streaming services and/or cable. Since they want you to pay them instead of other streaming services, they’ve been wanting to slow down your access to their competitor’s services so it’ll seem like theirs is better. However, with net neutrality, this was illegal, and everyone could access any streaming service they want at the fastest speeds. But now, we face a major threat of throttling, unless you pay for the “premium super deluxe platinum diamond plus pro value” streaming plan.
The counter argument to net neutrality was that good old competition would prevent ISP’s from throttling. Should a customer have their favorite website throttled, they can simply switch to another internet provider. Right? Wrong! Around 40% of the US population has only one choice for internet. That pretty much leaves the companies free to do what’s most profitable: raise prices because everyone needs internet and there’s only one option! It also gives them the added bonus of blocking all of their competitor’s streaming services because you have no where else to go.
Luckily, VPN’s provide a solution for this issue. Due to encryption, your ISP can only see that you’re connecting to a VPN server, and not what websites you happen to be visiting. Since they can’t see what you’re doing on the internet, they can’t selectively throttle websites they don’t like.
4. Cross-network Communication
While VPN’s today are mostly used as a security mechanism, they were also designed to allow devices on remote networks to communicate with each other. For example, imagine a business with two offices on opposite sides of a country. One office has all of the customer files, which also need to be securely accessed from the other office. One solution would be to make the server public to everyone on the internet, but that wouldn’t be a smart idea. The less people that have access to a server, the less likely there is to be a security breach. So, a VPN would allow the second office to connect to the first office’s network, which includes the server in question. All communication is encrypted, and no server, except for the VPN server(which could be hosted on a IaaS provider), needs to be publicly available.
This feature can also be useful to you if you have a home server or a NAS. If you have your server connected to the same VPN as your laptop, for example, your laptop will be able to access the NAS as if it were on the same network(via private IP addresses). Be warned that most VPN providers disable client to client communication so a hacker can’t connect to the VPN and try hacking all of the devices connected to the same server. However, you can find VPN providers that allow this, and if used properly, it can be a really useful tool.
5. Why not?
A few years ago, you could have made the argument that a VPN is too expensive, or makes your internet speeds too slow. However, with computing power and internet speeds continuing to increase, there is less and less of a reason not to use one. Chances are, your internet connection will be the bottleneck, not the VPN server, and not the encryption overhead. VPN services are only as expensive as you make them; there are many affordable yet high quality options to choose from. However, please be cautious when using a free VPN service. If it’s a trial of a premium VPN services, you’re probably fine. But start getting suspicious if a company offers unlimited VPN access for free, and always understand how they make money.
Originally published at www.ofthenerds.com on December 24, 2018.