You may have seen the word VPN (Virtual Private Network) mentioned in online discussions, or heard about it through friends â€“ but what exactly is it? How does it work and do you really need to install one on your device(s)?
Answers to all these questions (and some amazing benefits of VPNs) in the following paragraphs.
How VPNs Work
The VPN software itself (called a client) establishes a connection to a VPN server of your choice through a secured â€œtunnel.â€ The data passing through the tunnel is encrypted, meaning it cannot be read by outsiders without the required encryption key.
An easy way to understand the underlying concept is to think of how secret messages were sent in ancient times. To prevent somebody from intercepting them, their contents could only be decoded with a â€œcryptographic key.â€
A great example is the Caesar cipher, named after the famous Roman emperor who used it to encode his correspondence. Obviously, modern encryption methods need to be more complex to keep up with the immensely fast supercomputers nowadays.
Why Use a VPN
As of 2019, 25% of nearly 4.5 billion Internet users worldwide connect to the Internet through a VPN, with the top 3 markets being focused in Indonesia, India, and Turkey. So, why do well over a billion people think itâ€™s a good idea to have a VPN installed? Hereâ€™s a quick rundown of their capabilities before going in-depth later on:
â€¢ Hiding your online identity
â€¢ Securing the data you send and receive through your devices (computers, tablets, smartphones, and others). This also applies to file-sharing using torrents
â€¢ Bypassing geo-restrictions, firewalls, and Internet censorship
â€¢ Avoiding price discrimination from e-commerce websites and airline companies, as well as and bandwidth throttling by ISPs
â€¢ Certain advantages in online gaming
Letâ€™s take a look at each of these qualities in more detail.
1. Online Privacy and Security
Your data is a valuable commodity nowadays. Advertisers (or any online companies, really), Internet service providers (ISPs), intelligence agencies like the NSA, and especially hackers â€“ they all want a piece of the proverbial pie.
Internet providers have been known to sell your browsing habits to advertisers for a profit. Facebook can collect your data even if you donâ€™t have an account. Then thereâ€™s the whole global governmental surveillance debacle ever since Edward Snowdenâ€™s revelations back in 2013.
Since VPNs encrypt everything you do online, itâ€™s virtually impossible for your data to be exploited like that. Moreover, your real IP address is hidden and replaced with the one from the VPN server youâ€™ve chosen. This means your real location canâ€™t be tracked either.
Donâ€™t want your email login info, credit card or bank account details stolen? Then you wonâ€™t regret installing a VPN on your computer, smartphone, or any other supported device. Theyâ€™re an especially valuable tool seeing as the widespread use of public Wi-Fi has exponentially increased the number of hacking incidents.
Now, with the serious matters out of the way, letâ€™s see how VPNs can open up a new world of online entertainment.
2. Endless Content
You probably know how irritating this is:
â€¢ A new song from your favorite artist has just been released
â€¢ You excitedly head to YouTube, look it up and find it
â€¢ Instead of a song, youâ€™re met with some copyright notice, or simply â€œThis video is not available in your countryâ€ with no other explanation
Geo-blocks arenâ€™t just a YouTube problem, either. Plenty of streaming platforms only make their shows available in certain regions to comply with copyright regulations. So whatever you do, your content choices will always be limited. Unless you use a VPN, of course.
Since your device now has the IP address of the VPN server youâ€™re connected to (which is usually in a different country), you can access all sorts of previously blocked content. You may also bypass firewalls that prevent you from accessing various websites (whether itâ€™s at work, school, on public Wi-Fi, or even government-enforced firewalls). Yes, itâ€™s that easy to avoid Internet censorship by the government.
Speaking of content and censorship â€“ a VPN lets you play video games that are banned or simply exclusive to certain regions (MMOs for example). On a related note, you can also play with your friends from other regions, avoid DDoS attacks while gaming online, as well as bypass IP bans from public game servers.
On top of all this, you may also avoid bandwidth throttling by using a VPN. Your ISP canâ€™t see what youâ€™re doing online, so they canâ€™t slow down your connection speeds just because youâ€™ve streamed too many shows that month.
Quick disclaimer: we do not condone illegal file-sharing, but torrenting has many convenient uses that are perfectly legal. For example, many independent and major artists like to make their music and videos available for free through the official BitTorrent website. The Internet Archive also provides a treasure trove of books, old movies, TV shows and other media that has entered the public domain.
The only problem is that everyone can see your IP address while using a torrent client, and as mentioned that can be a serious privacy issue. By hiding your IP with a VPN, you avoid the risk of an Internet stranger finding out sensitive details about you.
4. Avoid Price Discrimination
Did you know you can get a better deal on flight tickets based on where you live? Of course, this isnâ€™t limited to the airline industry, but thatâ€™s the most common case of price discrimination. If you feel like they charge too much for a plane ticket or in online stores, try â€œchanging countriesâ€ with a VPN and see prices drop significantly.
So as you can see, a quality VPN service is worth the money. In fact, you can potentially make back the subscription money just by saving on online shopping â€“ not to mention the sheer amount of entertainment you can unlock by simply switching locations.