VPN or virtual private network is a familiar term to most of the netizens. Whenever you come across any news related to a privacy breach or something of a similar sort, you get to hear the word a lot more.
While most people have some clue about what VPNs are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it, there are still a lot of grey areas. In this article, we will deal with as many ‘whats,’ ‘wheres,’ ‘whys,’ and ‘hows,’ related to virtual private networks as possible.
By the end of this article, you will have a much better idea of how a private network keeps you safe on the internet and how come are you not safe on the internet in the first place.
VPNs are not all about keeping you safe, they are also an excellent means to explore a more open internet. We will go through some of the perks of having the services of a VPN at your disposal, as well.
So, let us tackle all these areas one by one and let you know about everything around VPNs.
What is a VPN?
A simpler definition would be; a virtual private network is a mediator between your device and the internet. When you connect to the internet via a VPN, the destination websites can’t retrace the connection back to you as it is the case under normal circumstances.
We know the above definition must’ve sounded a bit diplomatic, but we need to let you know right at the beginning that no means of privacy and anonymity is perfect.
There is always a cat and mouse game going on between those who want to sabotage your privacy and those who want to keep you safe on the internet. It means you can never assume that a situation will prevail forever.
Coming back to the topic, let us dive a bit deeper into what is a VPN.
A virtual private network consists of various servers located at different physical locations. These servers act as a possible exit node for your internet connection.
Once you are connected to a private network, you can browse the internet the same way, as usual, the only difference will be that it will be significantly difficult for anyone to find out that it is you who is accessing all those websites and content.
A VPN helps not just with preventing the websites and services from knowing that it’s you, it helps you stay safe from anyone who is trying to tap into your connection from where it starts. We are talking about internet service providers.
We will shed some more light on why they are one of the parties keen on knowing what you do on the internet. For the time being, all you need to know is your privacy is breached right from the moment you open up the web browser.
VPN encrypts your internet traffic between your device and the private network so that snoopers are not able to have a peek into what is it that you are trying to do on the internet.
The server network and the encryption have a significant say in determining the quality of protection and anonymity that a private network provides you. Therefore, we find it appropriate to have dedicated sections for both of them.
The server network
All the servers present in different physical locations are collectively known as the server network. More number of servers within a network means there are more possible exit nodes for you as the user.
When you use a VPN service, you will often get the option of choosing the server which you want to use as your pseudo location. Some of the services will also give you the option of redirecting your internet traffic through more than one server in their network.
The downside of all this redirecting is that there is more latency and you lose some of the snappiness of your connection. The servers have got a role to play in determining your internet speed, as well.
If the server hasn’t got enough bandwidth and there is more traffic than what it can handle, then the bottleneck can bother you.
All the top tier VPN services come with a lot of server locations and higher bandwidth capacity to ensure they don’t fall prey to issues related to high-density network traffic.
The physical distance between you and the server will affect the speed of the connection. A server network which covers a bigger area and with a good density of servers across all the regions will have a server close by most of its users.
Majority of the VPN services come with a better server network for North America and Europe. There are only a handful of VPN services which provide a satisfactory network cover over other continents.
If you live in a place other than North America and Europe, then you need to pay extra attention to the service’s server network before you subscribe to one.
A lot of people use private networks to access content which is blocked in their region. To access regional content, you need to make services believe that your connection is originating from one of the allowed areas.
There is no need to specify why it is a good thing for the network to have servers in as many regions and locations as possible.
So, the three things you require from any server network is that it should cover a big area, it should have a good density of servers across the region, and bandwidth capacity of each location should be large enough to handle high-density internet traffic.
VPN services usually encrypt the online traffic between your device and their server, and they also route it under secure internet protocols.
There are plenty of reasons which justify the use of encryption and protocols, but we will get into them in later parts of the review.
Encrypting the online traffic means transforming it into such a form that even if third parties manage to tap into your connection, they won’t be able to make out what you are doing.
The VPN application encrypts your internet traffic before redirecting it to one of its servers. Once the traffic reaches VPN servers, it is decrypted back into the usual form using the suitable decryption key.
The decrypted traffic is then further sent on to the destination website.
The whole process repeats itself in reverse as the information from the destination website reaches you through the private network. The traffic goes from the website server to the VPN server in the usual form, where it is encrypted, and then redirected to your device.
Once the encrypted traffic reaches your device, the VPN application decrypts it back to the usual form.
All this encryption and decryption of traffic keeps on happening continuously when you are connected to a private network.
Encryptions can be of various forms. AES 256-bit encryption is considered the best one out there. It is virtually impenetrable and probably overkill for the job. However, majority of VPN services come with the option of AES 256-bit encryption.
The next best thing, in case of encryption, is AES 128-bit. This one also makes a pretty strong case for impenetrable encryption. It won’t ask for as much of processing power as AES 256-bit and allows you to make the most of your high-speed internet connection.
Even though AES 256-bit is the best encryption available out there, we prefer AES 128-bit because of faster speed. One should not settle for anything less than these two encryptions when getting a VPN service.
Private networks not only obfuscate your internet traffic with the use of encryption, but they also route it under secure protocols to make sure it is extremely difficult for third-parties to see what you are doing on the internet.
You can consider these protocols as a secure tunnel between your device and VPN servers. Encrypted traffic makes it difficult for perpetrators to make out the content of your traffic, but it may still leak out some information around the traffic, such as the website you were trying to access.
The secure protocol will prevent even your ISP from knowing what websites you are trying to access.
You will come across a lot of protocol options on VPN services. Some protocols are extremely common and treated as industry standards, while there are some protocols created by individual VPN services and can’t be found on other platforms.
Each protocol comes with its own set of merit and demerits. OpenVPN is the protocol you would like your VPN service to have if you don’t know much about protocols. It brings both speed and security to the table and is appropriate for majority of use cases.
Some of the other commonly known protocols used on VPN services are L2TP, PPTP, IPSec, etc. If interested, you can go into much more details and learn about when to use them and how ports affect the performance.
If you get a VPN service with the right protocol and encryption, then you can consider a good portion of your job done. But there is more to a VPN than just protocol and encryption, and you need to make sure you get all the ingredients right to experience a more open and safer internet.
No-logs policy and 14-Eyes countries
Use of private network servers, protocols, and encryptions are all to make sure that no one gets to know a thing about your online activities.
But even after all these efforts to keep the information private, there is one body which knows everything you do on the internet, your VPN service.
There would be no point of using a VPN if it is the one thing which ends up compromising your online privacy. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that you pick a reliable VPN service for a subscription.
There are a few indicators which can help you decide if you should trust the service provider or not.
No-logs policy is among the most marketed feature of VPN services. You will come across a lot of VPN services which boast of having a no-logs policy. It means that they don’t keep any record of the user’s online activity.
But can you blindly trust the statements of a VPN service? The answer is an absolute no.
When a VPN service claims of having a no-logs policy, it can mean a lot of things. It may mean that they are not storing the actual content of what you did on a website, but they might be storing the information about the websites you visited.
It is always advisable to go through the privacy statement of a VPN service to get a clear idea of what kind of information they are going to store or not store.
You should know that most VPN services collect some kind of data related to activities happening on their server. Some of this data will be collective in nature and won’t be able to sabotage your anonymity in any way.
There is another form of information which can lead to disclosing some personal information of the user. For instance, if the servers are storing the IP address of users, then it can lead to disclosure of your location and even identity in some cases.
If the VPN service is storing only necessary information which can’t lead to the identification of users, only then you should think of subscribing to the service.
It is not just the online activity which can compromise your privacy, sometimes the information you use to sign-up for the service or to make the payment can be used to trace it all back to you. Make sure you have a clear idea of what the service provider is doing with all the information.
Another thing you need to be aware of is the jurisdiction under which the VPN service operates. There are countries which have mandatory data retention laws for businesses. It means that your service provider might be legally obligated to store information about you and present it to the authorities if they demand so.
There are some countries which don’t care much about individual privacies, and the government doesn’t think twice before spying on citizens. You should avoid getting a VPN service based in one such country.
5-Eyes, 9-Eyes, and 14-Eyes countries are groups of nations that share digital intelligence among them. There can be a lot of complications if your VPN service is based in one of these countries.
Finally, you would also like to see if there have been any past instances where the VPN service ended up giving away information about its users. This part might be slightly tricky, but you may be surprised what a few searches can tell you.
Some VPN services also maintain a warrant canary to add up to the trust quotient.
The privacy and anonymity add-ons
So far, we discussed the essentials of a VPN service. Let us now get to the features that improve the quality of privacy and anonymity you get on the VPN service.
Internet kill switch: This is probably the most common and most useful features on VPN services. An internet kill switch is there to stop all the internet traffic from your device in case the VPN connection malfunctions.
Kill switch saves you from all the possibilities of connecting to the internet without the safety of a private network. If you are concerned with your anonymity on the internet, then you should know that only one instance of unsecured connection is enough to expose your location.
Connecting to a private network along with the backup of an internet kill switch is usually the best way to operate.
IPv6 leak protection: If the VPN service does not support IPv6 requests, then it may end up compromising your anonymity on the internet. IPv6 is a relatively new way to store web addresses, and not all systems have been equipped to deal with them.
So, if your VPN service is unable to process an IPv6 request, then the request may be routed through usual means and systems, and this can end up leaking some of your private information.
DNS servers: Not all the VPN services out there have DNS servers of their own. Some rely on public DNS servers, such as the one from Google.
Using a public DNS server prevents your ISP from knowing about the websites you are trying to access. But someone else has now got all of that information.
When VPN services manage DNS servers, they ensure that none of the data related to your browsing activity is stored anywhere.
If possible, you should go for the VPN service which doesn’t rely on other services to route DNS requests.
Now there are a lot of other things you should keep in mind when looking for a better VPN service. It should be fast enough so that you don’t lose much on the quality of online experience. It should support the devices you own, there should be quick and competent customer support, and a lot more.
These features have got more to do with the quality of experience and less to do with online privacy. Therefore, we will not be going into those details.
We have reviewed almost all of the good VPN services on this website, and you can look into the reviews if you want to get a better idea of individual services.
We are more interested in discussing the reasons for which one should use a VPN. If one is aware of the possible threats and all the lurkers out there on the internet, then it is easy to make them realize the importance of a VPN service.
Why do you even need VPNs?
Now that you are well-aware of what are VPNs, let us go through some of the underlying causations for its need. Some of these needs are essentials while some of them can be considered more like perks of having a private network at your disposal.
The privacy breaches
All of us value our privacies. Even if the knowledge of our actions won’t give someone leverage over us, we don’t feel like letting everyone know about what we do. It’s simply none of anyone else’s business.
So, when you are sitting on your couch browsing away on the internet, it should be no one else needs to know the websites you are trying to access. Sadly, ISPs don’t think along the same line.
They keep track of all the websites you are visiting. They know when you accessed your bank account, when you booked those flight tickets, when you checked out those sneakers, and so much more.
A person’s browsing activity is an efficient way of creating a profile of that person. You can know about their interests, likes, dislikes, political interests, etc. In some cases, the information can be something that you don’t want others to know.
For instance, you would not want anyone to know about the medications you are taking. But people keeping track of your online activities will know about it if you look for medicines online.
Internet service providers are not the only ones who keep track of what you do on the internet. Sometimes the governments can get involved too. They do it in the name of national security.
The government already contains a lot of information about a citizen anyway. And when that information combines with their browsing record, it is as if your life in a document.
While ISPs and governments note down all about your online activities legally, there are cybercriminals always trying to get hold of this information using illicit ways.
All the parties which are after your browsing information have different motives. The ISPs usually sell out this data to the highest bidder. The enterprises use this information to bombard you with tailor-made ad campaigns.
This is why you start seeing the advertisement for those sneakers everywhere once you check them out on the online store.
The governments usually want to have control over such information because they like being in the driver’s seat. They know very well that knowledge is power, and all this knowledge of a citizen’s online activities gives governments a lot of leverage.
When we talk of cybercriminals, most of the times they will want to use this information to make money one way or another. Sometimes the motives can be beyond materialistic stuff, and things can get pretty messy in such cases.
Just the simple precaution of keeping your information away from the reach of everyone else keeps you safe from so many people and organizations trying to use your information against you.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, VPN encrypts all the internet traffic to and from your device. Thus, it doesn’t allow third parties such as ISPs, government bodies, and criminals from getting to know what you are doing on the internet.
The anonymity angle
When you visit a website, it can read your IP address. IP address contains all the information about your location. If one wants, they can use this location to track you down to the pin-point location.
Once they track you down to the location, there is nothing much left to be known. We know we make it sound a lot scary, but sometimes the situation is actually this scary.
Internet is swarming with all kinds of people with a variety of intents. Even though most of these people do not have any ill intentions against you, it takes only one to ruin the party.
Therefore, it’s only beneficial to keep yourself anonymous on the internet. It will not only provide you a safety cover on the internet, but it will also allow you to explore it with a lot more freedom.
Since it is your IP address which is used to find out about your location, VPN services ensure that your actual IP address is never available to the websites you visit.
Since all of your online traffic will be redirected through VPN servers, it is the VPN server’s IP address that the destination websites get to see. They assume it to be your IP address and then function accordingly.
As you will get to know in subsequent sections of this article, masking the IP address brings in a lot of advantage for users. The benefits include anything from cheap flight tickets to watching your favorite web series sitting in some foreign location.
Getting across censorships
All of us like freedom. Freedom to live wherever we want, freedom to follow whatever religion we want, freedom to marry whoever we want, freedom to express our opinion and so on. Among all these freedoms, people also desire to have the freedom to explore whichever part of the internet they want.
Majority of us live in countries where most of the internet is accessible, at least it is allowed by the government to access whatever we want. But there are a lot of countries where the open web is still a fantasy.
The online space is heavily censored by the governments, and people can only see those parts of the internet that the governments want them to see.
The regional restrictions affect people living outside these countries too. It is a difficult task to reach servers of some of these countries.
China is a prime example of how far countries can go with all these restrictions. Their regional firewall is often referred to as The Great Firewall of China.
It is not only difficult for people living in China to access various websites on the internet, but people living outside China also find it challenging to access some of those Chinese content.
A lot of the regional restrictions filter the traffic by analyzing the IP address and making sure that it is from one of the allowed regions.
With a private network, it is easy to take care of this issue by connecting to one of the VPN servers present in the allowed region. Once the firewall perceives your traffic to be originating from an allowed region, you can easily bypass the firewall.
However, some of the firewalls are not that easy to bypass. The analyze data packets to make sure it is not VPN traffic trying to circumvent the firewall. This is when you will need the service of better VPN applications.
They come with proxy services, which help you get across all the data inspection. VPNs are simply the best way to deal with the situation of heavily censored internet in countries.
Keeps you safe at public places
Okay, we are not talking about keeping you physically safe in public places but keeping your devices and online information safe in public places.
Open and free Wi-Fis are getting increasingly common in cafes and other public places such as airports.
While most of these networks were established with the motive of helping customers and travelers, there are some who try to take undue advantage of these avenues.
It is not a very difficult task for someone to get a hold of all the information you are transmitting on these networks. Since there are so many people using such networks, and a lot of them don’t have their guards up, cybercriminals find these places very lucrative.
The encryption cover which you get along with most VPN services is good enough to keep you safe from such petty breaches. If you use the private network applications to connect to these open networks, you will not have to worry much about your privacy.
Even if someone is out there catching data packets, all they will get from you is a bunch of gibberish. It would take them billions of years to decrypt all of that information.
Some VPN applications come with the smart connect feature. This feature ensures that the VPN is automatically enabled when you connect to one such unsafe network.
Accessing your favorite content
There is so much content available for consumption these days. There are so many awesome web series being created, the movies have also started to take care of preferences of most of the users.
But all of this content is not available at just one place. It becomes even bigger of a problem when you are constantly moving.
The content which is available on a streaming service in one country may not be available on the same streaming service in some other location. The only legitimate method to address this issue is either to get more channel subscriptions or to use a VPN.
A private network can help in this case just like it did in case of regional firewalls and censorships.
You can choose to connect from one of the servers in the location for which the streaming service allows browsing the content and then enjoy your favorite show.
You will discover that some streaming services are rather strict with all the restrictions they impose over the network. Once again, all VPN services will not be up to the task.
But the good ones will not disappoint in this case as well. We have listed out top VPN services for various streaming services on our website. You can go through those articles to find out which one will work best for the streaming service you use.
Since we are at the topic of obfuscating location, let us discuss some of the other benefits of using VPN to mask your region.
It can help you get cheaper flight and hotel tickets. You would be surprised to know how much of a difference it makes to change your location to some neutral venue when getting flight tickets.
You will need to take care of a few more steps along with connecting to a private network. You will have to clear any cookies that might be stored on your device, delete browsing history, and so on.
But the kind of money you can save on flight tickets, especially the international ones, is more than enough to take care of the VPN subscription.
The same goes for hotel booking. You will find it much easier to find cheaper hotels by obfuscating your location.
This section clearly indicates how a private network not only saves you from leaking your private information online, it is also a great tool to save money.
Torrenting has been made a Taboo. There is no doubt that most of it can be attributed to all the piracy and illegal exchange of content that used to happen via peer to peer downloads.
But there are bad apples everywhere. Piracy is bad, torrenting is not.
Media houses around the world have imposed several restrictions on torrenting. While this has helped curb down the piracy menace, it has also affected all the white-collar transactions happening via peer to peer downloads.
Torrenting has a lot of benefits over the usual forms of downloads, especially when it comes to downloading large files.
In the current scenario, users may notice that their connections get throttled when they try to use a peer to peer network, or there is some other kind of imposition from the ISP to ensure you don’t use torrent.
A private network won’t let the internet service provider know that you are involved in any kind of peer to peer download.
There are VPN services which even provide dedicated servers for p2p downloads. These servers are located in places where the crackdown on torrenting hasn’t been so severe. Additionally, these servers come with higher bandwidth to facilitate exchanging of larger files with ease.
The advantages and benefits of VPNs go far beyond than some of these sections we mentioned. At times, a private network may help you connect with your family through video chat from a foreign location, or it may help you remain indulged in that web-series you are currently watching.
It will help you keep your private matters to yourself and not let someone else take advantage of it.
At the end of the day, VPNs are simply a great tool deal with most of the negatives of the internet, and one should always have this armor to enjoy a qualitatively better online ecosystem.
What are top VPN services?
There are hundreds or probably thousands of companies offering various VPN solutions. Many of them are backed by robust infrastructure. Below is a list of top products you can try.
|Product||For||Pricing From||Website||Read More|
|Most Responsive Support||$2.99 / month||Visit Website||Read Review|
|Overall Best||$6.67 / month||Visit Website||Read Review|
|For Best Security||$4.65 / month||Visit Website||Read Review|
|For Highest Privacy||€ 8.95/Month||Visit Website||Read Review|
|Best Server Network||$2.88 / month||Visit Website||Read Review|