The Beginners’ Guide to VPNs

Last December, a Chinese citizen by the name of Wu Xiangyang was sentenced to five and a half years in prison. The crime: selling software that enables users to bypass what has become known as The Great Firewall of China – a droll term coined to describe the country’s ever-growing restrictions on internet access.

You may feel outraged hearing this news, and rightly so – the excessively harsh and blatant nature of the act is intolerable, but it is arguably no more worrying than any of a handful of recent major security breaches – think PRISM, Cambridge Analytica, and any of the massive data heists that hit Yahoo!, Sony, and Uber to name a few.

The point is this: be it governments, operating either overtly or covertly, internet companies, or lone wolf hackers, they are out to get your data.

Going back to Mr. Wu’s story, the software that got him locked up is used to connect users to VPNs, or virtual private networks.

What’s a VPN?

Security concerns are what initially spawned VPNs. The technology was originally devised by corporates looking to create secure communication channels with their remote workers. Later on, the technology became available to individuals looking to surf the web safely.

Here’s how it works: Typically, data flows from your computer to the website you are trying to reach through your Internet Service Provider, or ISP, and vice versa. In this scenario, you are exposed to several vulnerabilities. One, while the data travels along this route, it is susceptible to being spied on. Two, your ISP knows everything about your online activities now. Three, the website you are trying to reach knows your location thanks to your IP address, a networking protocol that computers use to communicate.

VPNs are comprised of a number of servers scattered around the globe. A VPN server sits between your ISP and the website you are trying to reach. This means that the latter will see data coming from the server’s IP instead of yours. This practically means that, as far as the website is concerned, you are coming from the same country where the VPN’s server is located. Regional restrictions go bye bye.

But there is still the issue of the ISP. Well, the VPN software installed on your device adds a strong layer of encryption, which only gets decrypted on its remote server, and vice versa on the way back. Your ISP only sees indecipherable data and has no idea where it is heading either.

That’s the Gist of it, But There’s More

In addition to being able to access geo-restricted content – think Hulu, BT sports, ITV, etc – and avoiding censorship – local ISPs can’t block you from accessing banned websites if they don’t know where you are going – you would be able to save money on cheaper prices and discounts not available in your country.

What’s more, ISPs won’t be able to throttle your connection if they think you’re ‘consuming too much bandwidth’. Torrenting becomes safer as well, as peers won’t be able to see your IP.

Strong encryption also means that you can safely use public, often compromised public wifi networks at hotels and coffee shops.

What Are the Downsides?

Speed. Encryption adds a slight yet noticeable lag to your internet speed. Similarly, the farther the VPN server is from where you are, the longer it will take for the data to travel back and forth.

They cost money. Although prices are fairly reasonable, for any decent VPN service you are going to have to shell out a monthly fee. Some VPNs are free, but you should typically stay away from those.

Picking a VPN service is hard; there is no such thing as a perfect VPN. Every service comes with pros and cons, so it really boils down to finding one that suits (most of) your needs. Features that will factor in in your decision will likely include the breadth of the network (comprised of the countries in which the VPN has servers), encryption (some are strong, some not so much), usability (not all interfaces are created the same), and price.

Final Words on VPNs

Long is the way when it comes to VPNs. Using a VPN to access geo-restricted content is not inevitably illegal, which is what you might have intuitively guessed. For one, the VPN will only take you to a desired web service, you would still have to pay your fees to use it. In many instances, VPNs are used by expats who just happen to be outside of the area where the content is licensed. Regardless, most sites are aware of VPNs and many try to block them. It’s a never-ending war.