VPN stands for virtual private network and maybe you’ve heard that term in association to privacy and to geolocation.
But what exactly is it? How does it work? And what can it do for you?
Well, let me explain.
Now before we dive into VPNs let me tell you a little bit how the internet works, now at home you’ve probably got some kind of router or modem from your telephone company or from your internet service provider and then that’s connected to your desktop maybe by an Ethernet cable to your smartphone over Wi-Fi maybe to your laptop over Wi-Fi and so on.
Consider inside of your house when your laptop talks to your PC or your phone talks to your PC, that’s part of your private network and that doesn’t go out onto the internet it stays inside your house. But the moment you open a web page somewhere out on the internet, that data flows through your modem down into your local phone company and then out across the internet. It will travel across the internet until it gets to the server, the server will then reply with some information that will come back through the internet into your local telecommunications provider down through to your modem and then back onto your PC or onto your smartphone.
While all that data is rushing around the internet it needs to know where it’s going and for things to know where they’re going and they need an address, it’s the same with the postal service, it’s the same when you want to go and visit somebody and it’s the same with data on the internet.
There are different layers of addressing or different types of addressing that go on but at the highest level, each of these packets of information has what’s called an IP address. Now the IP address is you’ve probably seen them there those four digits from 0 to 255 with dots in between them, so maybe 188.8.131.52 something like that.
Your modem or your router has probably been assigned an IP address from your ISP. What happens is that when your data goes through the internet, every piece of equipment it touches, every router every server it touches knows that IP address. Especially when it gets to the web server at the other end, that web server will probably log that IP address and log what it is that you’ve requested.
The reason it has done that is not due to the reason it is trying to spy on you, but because it is trying to collect data about the number of people that are connected to the website when the peak periods are, basically for data and traffic analysis.
But of course there’s another thing that we need to know about IP address and that is they’re assigned in blocks. So if you have an IP address, all of your neighbors and all the people in your area will have the same IP addresses within the same block and there is a database that tells you where these blocks of addresses are assigned, that means that when the data arrives at this web server you’re connecting to, it has a pretty good idea of where you are from, certainly at the country level, most definitely at the city level and maybe even down to within a couple of blocks of where your actual house is.
If you don’t believe me go to whatismyipaddress.com and you’ll see what information that can be found out about you, just by going to that web page just from your IP address.
Normally, that’s not a problem the fact that I go to Twitter isn’t going to cause any problems for anybody, however if I start to access stuff that is maybe a bit more sensitive, maybe I have a physical problem I want to read about all the needs I may have an emotional problem, maybe I want to look about a top topic that is taboo in my culture in the country that I live in, then suddenly these different that these servers know where I’m from and know about my IP address is a bit more concerning.
More than that, most governments throughout the world have a system where they can demand from an ISP the actual person that was assigned a particular IP address on a particular date.
So if they come in and they say, well we want to find out who was reading about this particular topic, they can come to my ISP and say give us that data, depending which country in depending on which laws are enacted that can be a quicker or a longer protest, can be more difficult can be with more supervision with less supervision, but basically every state around the world has access to that information.
There are not only governments we need to be worried about. For example if you’re in a coffee shop you’re sitting in Starbucks and you’re thinking great I’ve got coffee I’ve got free internet, now these open public Wi-Fi hotspots are quite dangerous, it’s not difficult for anybody with a bit of technical knowledge to take a laptop and sit in a coffee shop and to capture all of the data packets that are flowing around in the airways, and because the earth the Wi-Fi point is open they actually know that data is encryption, it’s very easy to get hold of passwords to get hold of lists of websites that are being accessed, it’s even possible to get hold of contents of emails.
There are software levels of encryption, for example, WhatsApp just implemented end-to-end encryption so that was captured it would be more difficult for the hacker to get the contents of your messages. However an open free height Wi-Fi hotspot is basically open for access both for good and for bad things.
So please do not do any online banking or access website like PayPal when you are connected to your coffee shops Wi-Fi, just don’t do it.
Another interesting thing about IP addresses and about geolocation is that if I try to access content, that is video content, particularly that is for a particular country and if I’m outside of that country I don’t have access to it. Let’s just take a simple example, let’s say I’m traveling and I want to get access to my video streaming service I can’t if I’m outside of the country. That’s because the IP addresses that arrived at the video streaming server says that my IP address isn’t in this country, I’m going to block access that. Some types of content are blocked depending on which country you’re in.
And another interesting thing actually is that pricing is different depending on which country you’re in. Now you can try to buy some maybe some cloud storage or maybe an online service and if you try to buy it in maybe in the United States it will be a different set of pricing than if you try to buy it in Europe.
And also, in fact, ExpressVPN recently a study where they found out that actually if you buy airplane tickets, the price of exactly the same flight or exactly the same number of people from exactly the same Airport is different depending on which country you actually connect from when you try to buy those tickets.
So geofencing geolocation actually changes things about how we access the Internet how we purchase services and how we buy goods depending on where we are.
Now what a VPN does, is
When I access something on the Internet it goes through that tunnel and then it arrives at that other server and then it goes on to the Internet and it will finally arrive at the web server or the service I’m trying to use, but the IP address will no longer be my IP address that’s on that data packet it will actually be the IP address of the VPN server and what happens is that when it replies, it replies to the VPN server.
The VPN services will re-route this through an encrypted connection to the client who has connected to it.
This allows for a whole bunch of possibilities. For example first of all your local telecommunications provider and your local government have no idea about the sites that you’re accessing when you go through the VPN.
It’s all encrypted, now once it goes beyond the VPN, once it comes out the VPN server, of course, it then goes back into the open, it goes back pass through all the different routers and things it needs to get to the website and the website itself will register the fact that certain address has come to it but the address now will be that of the VPN server.
It also means that it thinks I’m in a different country. So if I’m trying to access media videos streaming content, if I’m trying to buy things then actually it might set the prices or give me access or block access now depending on where the VPN server is, not depending on where I am and thirdly if I’m using open Wi-Fi then actually now that initial connection from my laptop out to the Internet is actually completely encrypted.
So if there was somebody sitting in the coffee shop connecting with a laptop trying to connect and catch all the packets they won’t be able to get that much because it will all be encrypted.
Now how does this work? What do you need to do?
The first thing need to do is get yourself a VPN service and there is a myriad of different VPN services available on the internet.
Here is a list of my personal recommended VPN services.
When you subscribe, what happens is you get given a username a password and a list of servers. Servers in Europe, America, South America and servers all around the world, and basically you say I want to create a virtual private network a tunnel from my laptop, from my PC, from my smartphone to this particular server in this particular country.
On a smartphone that’s really easy to do in fact, VPNs have an app you just download the app you put in username a password and then you just tap the server that you want to connect to and it will create that tunnel that connects that encrypted connection to that server.
You can also do it manually through the settings page you can create VPN connections and that’s the same on Windows you can do that in windows /IOS also on
So actually a VPN is available across many many types of devices and once that connection is made, all your data traffic, all of your stuff you’re doing will go through that VPN out into the Internet in a different country and then further abroad where it needs to go.
Now this all sounds great but are there some downsides?
Now there are a few downsides the first one is that you’re sending your traffic deliberately maybe in the opposite direction to where the services that you need. If I’m in Europe and maybe I make a connection to a VPN that’s in Asia and then I try to access a website that in America, what’s happening now is I have to send the data halfway across the world and then halfway across the world again to get to that server.
So the connection is going to be slower. You are routing the traffic all over the place and it’s going to be slower than if you were connecting directly to that service.
It could also be slower because the VPN provider has a limited number of servers and it has a limited number or bandwidth, so therefore if there are lots of clients or it’s a particularly busy time of day then connecting is going to be slower because I’m actually busy with all the other people.
Now the difference between an expensive VPN service provider and a cheap one is the amount of bandwidth and the number of servers they’ve got so that’s something to watch for when you’re choosing a VPN service provider.
And of course, the other thing is that some countries actually find have made a VPNs illegal.
And the other thing is that some services actually block access when they see that a VPN is being used like Netflix, which was in the news recently because it’s making strides to try to block VPN access.
So as a summary whenever you connect to the internet an IP address is used to route traffic to the server and back again the server will probably log that address and it will also be known by your phone company.
The government has access to that data if it uses the right legal framework to ask the phone company for that information but also just the mere fact that you’ve used an IP address it actually can give away quite a lot of information about where you are.
When you’re using public Wi-Fi hotspots when you’re buying things online, these things are open and these things are controlled depending on where you are in the world which means, you may not have to access certain things, you may have to pay higher prices for certain things.
Now a VPN allows you to connect to another server in another country and then to connect further onto the internet.
It has the advantage of using different geolocation which means you can get around certain access restrictions and it’s encrypted, which means that if you were using like your local coffee shop, that data is now encrypted.
Here is a video by ExpressVPN explaining the basics of VPN :