What’s a VPN anyways?

Ian Wambai
Feb 26 · 3 min read
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If you’ve been watching YouTube in the last year, you’ve probably seen plenty of advertisements for VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks. So, what’s the big deal anyways?

Why do we need VPNs?

The Internet is basically a connection of computers. Your computer, for example, is currently connected to the Medium computer and your browser has downloaded files from that computer and is currently showing them to you as this article. This is how we interact with all the billions of computers available on the internet.

On the other hand, a lot of these computers/sites/apps we connect to every day are owned by businesses that are incentivised to collect data about you in order to sell targeted advertisements. They collect information from you every time you use their services, and that information can include your IP address, which someone malicious can use to brute-force a connection to your device. Once they succeed, they take control of your device, steal your data or even impersonate you.

It’s also possible in some situations for malicious people to access sensitive data from your device as it’s sent through the network. This can include passwords or card information.

We need a way to protect our online identities from these kinds of risks. It may not seem like anyone is interested in your data, but at the scale of the internet, your data is currently guaranteed to be tracked if you’re not taking any measures to protect it. Most of the time, it’s for advertising, but there’s a lot of value in being able to hack into and control millions of devices via the internet.

What’s a VPN?

VPNs were initially made so that computers within, for example, an office or school could all communicate with each other, but people outside that network would not be able to see that information, but VPNs also come with other advantages:

  • Confidentiality: The Internet will route the data, but it will be unable to decrypt it.
  • Sender authentication: People need to authenticate themselves, to be able to use the network.
  • Message integrity: Messages transported across the network cannot be changed easily while they are in transport. When a message is changed, it is possible to detect this.

The encryption process allows VPNs to offer anonymity by hiding the user and making it very hard for anyone to track them. As a result, VPN helps make your online activities on the web anonymous and undecipherable.

You can also use VPNs to change the country that you appear in. If content is blocked for your country, you can use a VPN to make it seem like you’re in a different country so you can access that content. However, some developers like Netflix have added ways to detect if you’re using a VPN and prevent you from accessing the content either way.

How do I get a VPN?

Currently there are many options for VPNs depending on your use case and how much money you’re willing to spend. All you have to do is download the VPN app of your choice, select the country you would like to use to mask your location and you’re good to go. Not all VPNs are equal, some have privacy and security issues the way they are set up and it’s important for you to do your research before selecting one. Some of the more popular ones include:

  • Express VPN: ExpressVPN is a pretty great service. There’s little contest when it comes to this VPN and what redditors think about it. The provider is widely considered to be the best VPN outside 14 eyes states, as you can confirm in the VPN comparison chart above.
  • Nord VPN: NordVPN gets mixed reviews. Although the performance of the VPN is commended by a lot of people, some users have developed trust issues with the VPN. This thread will give you good idea about what redditors generally think of NordVPN.
  • CyberGhost: CyberGhost is a recognized brand in the VPN industry. However, lately there have been some complaints from users about poor customer service.

As you can see, there are different considerations to make when choosing a VPN, and the service can vary greatly. Either way, it’s recommended that you use a VPN along with strong passwords, limiting the amount of personal information that you provide, using password managers, and various other measures to protect yourself online.

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