Let’s face it, information technology is pretty darn complicated and most of the terminology sounds like utter jargon that’s impossible to understand. If you’ve ever been cornered into a boring conversation with a technology nut, you know that it sounds like they’re speaking a foreign language. The movies certainly don’t help, either. In just about any modern action or espionage film, you’re going to hear a lot of terms that the average user simply doesn’t understand. VPNs, encryption, and firewalls…oh my!
The good news is that even if you’re not a technology junkie and don’t come from an I.T. background, it’s not too hard to understand how VPNs work and how they help keep you safe on the Internet. To help increase your knowledge, safety, security, and anonymity online, we’re going to take a moment to demystify a few terms so you have an understanding of encryption technologies that’ll make you smarter than the average bear.
What is a VPN?
A VPN is a type of security software that stands for Virtual Private Network. Sometimes you have may have heard them referred to as a VPN tunnel, and for our purposes today, these synonyms can be used interchangeably. One of the largest benefits is encryption, which Merriam-Webster defines as “change (information) from one form to another especially to hide its meaning.” Basically, when your data is changed to an encrypted format, it is impossible to decrypt and read until it has reached the VPN server and been decrypted. This makes it impossible for the government or a stray hacker to intercept and read the information you send online. In addition, it hides your browsing activities from your Internet service provider (ISP).
However, it also provides additional benefits that disguise your identity by masking your IP address. An IP address is simply a globally unique identifier that is provided by your ISP. Since it is globally unique (with a few exceptions), it is easy to see which customer made a connection attempt with various websites. This is how online entities are able to track users’ activities. But a VPN server basically allows you to borrow an IP address that is hosted on the VPN server. And since many VPN providers have shared IP addresses, there isn’t any way to trace which user visited a website without logging software. Fortunately, VPN providers typically have strict no logging policies to protect the anonymity of their customers.
Thirdly, VPN services allow users to access data that has been geo-restricted. Sometimes content is censored because it is deemed offensive by the government. For example, some content may clash with a societies beliefs, values, and religion, so they make sure to block that data from the general public. Furthermore, some websites simply can’t allow foreign users to connect to their service due to copyright, licensing, and trade laws. If you discover that one of your favorite websites has been restricted at your location, all you need to do is fire up your VPN software, connect to a country where that data is permissible, and then you can access your site.
In summary, the following are the benefits of using a VPN:
allows you to access restricted, blocked, and censored web content
allows you to spoof your geographic location to access foreign services
protects you against hackers that steal data at Wi-Fi hotspots
protects against governments, hackers, and thieves that want to steal, intercept, and read your personal data
Adds an extra layer of security for Bit Torrent and P2P downloads
Is It Illegal to Use a VPN Tunnel?
Most people who are new to using a VPN all seem to have the same question on there minds: is it legal to use a VPN tunnel? The short answer is yes, it’s perfectly legal. There are a rare few countries, mostly in the Middle East, that have made it illegal to purchase a VPN tunnel. However, it’s legal to use a VPN tunnel just about everywhere.
The honest truth is that it really isn’t possible for any developed nations to publicly block the use of VPN technologies, because the government is as dependent on them as their citizens. Even within China, which is notorious for blocking content with the Great Firewall of China, it is still legal, though they have made attempts in the past to block incoming VPN connections that were one end domestic and one end foreign. Even their best attempts were only partially successful, and there haven’t been any reported cases of someone being punished for simply using a VPN tunnel.
Understand, however, that some nations do require their domestic VPN services to log traffic. However, VPN services are really a global utility, so you can easily find one based in a country that doesn’t require them to keep logs. And the logs that most VPN providers keep don’t impose surveillance on users’ data. Instead, they only log metadata, such as which server a user connected to and how long they were connected. Some providers will even delete these logs within a few days, and it could take weeks or months before a government obtains the authority to demand information from a domestic firm.
This should give you a solid working knowledge of what a VPN tunnel is, how they work, and what they do. It’s in your best interest to take advantage of this essential yet incredibly affordable technology. The prices range quite a bit dependent on the service you want, how long you subscribe, and whether you want any extra features. That said, you can reasonably expect to pay anywhere between $2.08 and roughly $10.00 USD per month – which I think we can all agree is a mere pittance. I don’t personally think you can put a price on the peace of mind that you are browsing the web without a big brother figure looking over your shoulder, snooping through your data, and invading your privacy.
For a quick guide of some good VPNs, check out our article here.