What is a VPN?

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) serve a variety of purposes. Some of the most popular uses include accessing business or public networks securely and browsing the web privately. After reading this resource, you’ll know how VPNs work and what protocols are used with this technology.

VPN Meaning

When you access the internet on a trusted home or business device, your connection is private and secure. But when you’re away from home or work, you are usually accessing the web through public Wi-Fi or a hotspot. These connections are less secure and less private. A Virtual Private Network is a private connection to an otherwise public network. It is an effective answer to the security and privacy problems business and home users face while online.

How Does VPN Work?

When an internet connection is established with a VPN, web traffic first hits the VPN’s server. Any resource the device is connecting to will see the IP address of the VPN’s server instead of the IP of the device.

When using a VPN, data is also encrypted. This helps keep your browsing activity private. Using a VPN doesn’t mean a person is doing something nefarious online. Internet service providers (ISPs) track everything users do online. Businesses also “spy” on user activity through cookies. Why would they do that? Simple. Because most ISPs and businesses use online data for profit. But that isn’t the only concern. Hackers also target organizations and home users on vulnerable networks.

Tip: Every website must notify users of its cookie policy. Most of the time, a window will pop up asking a user to accept cookies. If you are concerned about online privacy, take a few extra seconds and turn off all cookies but “strictly necessary cookies,” if a website gives you the option. Some websites only have necessary cookies turned on by default, but you’d be surprised how many have every tracking method on—no doubt in hopes visitors just hit “accept” and keep it moving.

What Does a VPN Do?

Aside from traffic data encryption, masking personal IP addresses, and securing access to business networks, using a VPN provides anonymity and identity theft protection. It also helps to bypass government censorship and regional restrictions for online content. An example of this would be if a streamed television show is available only in a certain country. A VPN can help circumvent these types of restraints.

Best VPN Options

There are free and paid options for VPN services. For business use, premium options are almost always going to be a better choice. A free VPN is okay for casual home users, but typically comes with far less features and data usage than a paid service. Premium VPNs also use protocols that are more secure than some free providers, such as Layer Two Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) or platforms like OpenVPN. Free services often use (but not always) Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP).

What is PPTP, OpenVPN, and L2TP Protocols

L2TP offers a higher level of encryption and uses 256-bit keys. This provides two layers of protection for data running through the VPN. PPTP is a lower-level encryption that uses 128-bit keys. While PPTP is a tad faster and often easier to set up, it is less secure than L2TP.

OpenVPN is a widely-used open-source platform. Because it’s open-source, vulnerabilities or holes in security are easier to spot. Malicious code is also less of a concern, as it is fully transparent and visible to anyone. This means any security issues can be fixed quickly before most users can be exploited.

Here are a few VPN services that are consistently rated favorably among users:





Norton Secure VPN


Free VPN Options

If a paid subscription isn’t in the budget, and you only need a VPN for occasional browsing, a free service may work just fine. There are a slew of options to choose from for desktops and smartphones. Some web browsers even have VPN built-in, such as Opera. Just remember, data allotment is limited in many free VPNs. Using a VPN can also slow down your internet considerably and some sites will block access to devices using it.

Tor Network

There’s also The Onion Router (Tor). If you’re a House of Cards fan, you most likely heard several references to Tor and “the dark web.” While Tor shares similarities with VPN, they are not the same thing. The major difference is that VPNs are about privacy and secure access, whereas Tor is about remaining anonymous. And of course, it’s the only way you can access .onion sites. To run Tor, you will need to download the Tor browser and possibly make adjustments to your internet settings.

Virtual Private Networks Wrap-up

The most appealing aspects of using a VPN are better internet privacy and security. It’s a safe and secure way to browse the internet privately. But, it doesn’t hide everything. Search histories are still logged by browsers and VPNs don’t offer complete anonymity. While your IP address is concealed, there is a chance that internet service providers and some websites will “know” you are using a VPN. It’s also good to remember that VPNs can slow down your internet. That said, the security and privacy a VPN service provides more than makes up for the downsides for most users.

If you found this useful, why not share it? If there’s a topic you’d like to know more about, reach out and let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

If you liked this, you might find these helpful:

Can’t Access Websites With VPN

Tor Project

Why You Need VPN

Heather Oliver
Heather Oliver is a Technical Writer for Constellix and DNS Made Easy, subsidiaries of Tiggee LLC. She’s fascinated by technology and loves adding a little spark to complex topics. Want to connect? Find her on LinkedIn.

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