Virtual Private Network (VPN)

 In Cyber, Cybersecurity, Encryption, Privacy, Security

If you access the internet, or if you are a technically savvy person, you might have heard the term VPN floating around a lot. What exactly is a VPN and how does it allow you to be secure over the internet? Read on to find out.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network is essentially a service that allows you to benefit from the management, functionality, and security of a private network despite connecting to the internet via a public network. In other words, a VPN service lets you access the web safely by hiding your online actions and routing your connection through a server. A VPN can also be thought of as a secure tunnel between two or more devices, thus allowing you to access the web anonymously.

How does a VPN work?

It is now established that a VPN network allows you to access the web securely. How exactly does a VPN work? This is what happens when you connect the web through a VPN:

  1. When connecting to the internet using a VPN service, you start the VPN client from your computer/device. Your VPN service provider provides this VPN client.
  2. The VPN client encrypts your data even before your Internet Service Provider or any interested party can access it.
  3. Your encrypted data reaches the VPN server and is routed to the online destination. Your online destination can be a bank website, a search engine, or a video sharing website.
  4. When the encrypted data and request reaches the destination, the online destination sees that the request/data is coming from a VPN Server. Your computer and your location, however, remains hidden from the online destination.

Hence, connecting to the web through a VPN has these benefits:

• Your data is encrypted even before it reaches your ISP.
• If someone does peek at the data you are sending, they can only see the encrypted information.
• The destination site sees that the VPN server is the origin of the request and not your computer.
• It becomes difficult to identify your computer, or what you are doing.

The web consists of several servers which are interconnected with each other and which share your data amongst each other to let you browse a page. This leaves your personal data out in the open. If you are just surfing a normal website, this mechanism does not harm you. However, if you are browsing your online banking website, your important work website or your business email, then the chances of your data being compromised are huge.

There is no mechanism to hide your location and details from the online destination when accessing the web without a VPN. Your data remains in the open, and the online destination, as well as any interested party, can view it with ease.

How secure is a VPN?

The benefits of surfing the internet through a VPN is outweighed by the questions on VPN security. VPN security is a topic that causes a lot of debate amongst IT professionals. The fact that no two services are identical adds up to the complexity of determining the security level of VPN services. Additional complexities are added upon by the fact that VPN services are driven by legal and policy limitations and the laws of the country where the VPN service is located. The VPN services provided by a company generally depends on the given factors:

Legal factors and Company strategy

VPN service providers are there to protect your data and secure your privacy when connecting to the web. It is, however, important to note that they too are governed by local laws of the country and their own company strategy. There might be cases when the company is ordered to share their records with the court. In other cases, there can be international agreements between two nations to share web activity details. Hence, the borderline of VPN security is ultimately governed by the VPN service that you use. In other words, a VPN is only as secure as the VPN provider itself.

VPN Protocols

Another factor governing VPN security is VPN Protocols. A VPN protocol determines how data transmission occurs over a VPN service. Some protocols are elaborated below:

• PPTP (Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol)
This is the oldest protocol in use and is a part of the Windows operating system. It uses a TCP control channel to encapsulate point to point packets. However, this protocol falls back in terms of security. It is advisable to avoid a VPN service provider who offers this protocol.

• L2TP/ IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol)
This protocol uses keys at each end of your data tunnel to establish a secure connection, but the execution is not very safe. This is another protocol to avoid as its security is debatable and has been questioned a lot.

• SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol)
This protocol is also built by Microsoft and is established with SSL/TLS encryption. It works by employing symmetric-key cryptography, meaning that only the parties participating in the transfer can decode the data. Since SSL/TLS encryption is a de facto standard for web encryption in this age, SSTP is a very secure solution.

• OpenVPN
OpenVPN is the most versatile and the most secure protocol in this age and time. It is based on the SSL/TLS protocol and is an open source project which is being improved by hundreds of developers constantly. It secures the connection by using keys which are only known by the participating parties.

• IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange, Version 2)
This is another protocol built by Microsoft and is an iteration of Microsoft’s previous protocols. It is hence more secure than the other protocols designed by Microsoft. It works by producing the same symmetric key for the communicating parties.

Generally, most VPN’s allow you to select the protocol service to use. The combination of OpenVPN and IKEv2 is the most secure way to use a VPN service.

Is VPN fully legal?

Yes. VPN is a legal service. However, the roles related to VPN services are murky and are different everywhere. Hence, there are different interpretations to as if VPN is a fully legal service or not.

VPNs are legalized in countries like the UK, US, Canada, and Western Europe. VPN services are not legalized in countries like Oman, Russia, UNA, China, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. What matters, in this case, is your physical location when using a VPN service.

Find the laws of your local government to know the legal rules related to a VPN service, before deciding to take it up.

Does VPN make you 100% anonymous?

A VPN does not make you 100% anonymous, but it does to some extent. The extent to which a VPN can offer anonymity is however impressive.

Without a VPN, your data is open and subjected to breaches. Your connection remains fully open, and any person with the right tools can peek into the data you are sending over. Having a VPN in the middle means creating a barrier between you and the destination, and encrypting your data. The extent of anonymity of a VPN service depends on the following:

• Logs
If the VPN service keeps logs, then the extent of anonymity is somewhat reduced.

• Jurisdiction
The jurisdiction of the location of the VPN service makes a huge difference to the anonymity of VPN. If a VPN service provider is forced to keep records, then the government might come asking questions that need answering.

• Encryption mechanism and protocol used
The anonymity of VPN also depends on the security of the protocol and the encryption mechanism used.

Make your choice wisely, depending on the extent of anonymity that you require. A VPN service that does not keep logs/records and uses a good encryption mechanism and protocol will work best in keeping you anonymous.

What are the VPN logging policies?

The logging policies of VPN services significantly determines the level of anonymity and privacy that you obtain from the service. Every VPN service has its own logging policy, and the extent of logs they keep depends on their company strategy and local government rules. The logs that a service provider may save include the:
• User activity
• Payment logs
• Connection/ disconnection timestamps
• Devices used
• IP addresses

Tying these details back to you would be difficult, but is doable if a company would deliberately want to trace you. The fewer logs that the service provider keeps, the better will it be for you.

Beware of VPN service providers who ensure anonymity in their sales materials but do not implement it in real. Read a VPN provider’s privacy policy carefully, to know the logging policies that they implement.

Is it okay to use free VPNs in comparison to paid VPNs?

A good VPN service requires a lot of money to run. Costs associated with data transfer, robust servers, employees and infrastructure, etc. causes a VPN service provider to invest a lot into their services. If a VPN service is offered for free, you can be sure of the fact that a lot of compromises have been made.

A free VPN earns money by either having a logging activity for their own reasons or by displaying a lot of advertisements. Free VPN services can also be selling your data to a third party.

The average cost of paid VPNs rounds about to as little as 3-5 dollars a month. Subscribing for a VPN service one to two years upfront can offer you even more discounted rates.

The bottom line of this discussion is the fact that VPN services cost very little but are a good investment when it comes to increased online privacy. Using free VPN services can be even more expensive than it initially seems.

Is VPN Safe for Torrenting?

Generally speaking, VPN services can be used for torrenting. However, it depends on the service you are using and the kind of things that you torrent.

Torrenting is a protocol used to transfer files over the internet. However, it does not define the types of files being transferred. Torrenting is perfectly legal if you have the rights to the data being transferred. Regardless of the VPN services you use, piracy, however, is illegal.

VPNs have their own policy regarding torrenting. Most VPN solutions allow torrenting. However, some VPN services might have their own logging policies for torrenting. Generally, a VPN that does not log your other activities will not keep logs for your torrenting activities. Hence, the use of VPN for torrenting depends on a VPN provider’s logging policy and the type of content you torrent.

Another aspect that determines if a VPN is good for torrenting is the download speed that the service offers. This information is difficult to obtain, so it’s good to read some reviews related to the torrenting download speed that a VPN service offers before you make a choice.

Can VPN be used to Watch Netflix/Hulu?

You can use VPN to watch Netflix/ Hulu, but it again depends on the VPN that you use.

Netflix is available in over 130 countries, but its shows are not distributed equally. Due to legal issues, TV stations have the right to Netflix’s own shows, and those shows might not be available in specific regions.

Netflix and Hulu block content based on location filters. If your country is banned, it essentially means that you will be banned.

However, this problem is solved when you use a VPN to watch Netflix/ Hulu. When using a VPN, you can select the server that you want to connect with. To watch a show on Netflix/ Hulu, you can easily select the server in the country where the show is available. Since Netflix/ Hulu will not be able to see your location, but the location of the VPN server, you can watch the content with ease. Hence, VPN’s can actually help you gain access to Netflix and Hulu content that you could not obtain otherwise.

Does VPN Work on Android/iOS?

Yes. A VPN service can work on Android/ IOS. Many VPN services let you download mobile apps for Android or IOS and set up a VPN connection easily.

However, do not be tempted with free VPN apps for Android and iOS. Research by the International Computer Science Institute and the University of California Berkeley states that amongst the 280 free Android apps that use Android VPN permissions, 75% use tracking libraries, 38% of those apps are malware and 84% of those apps leak the user’s traffic details.

Does VPN Work on SmartTV/Kodi?

Smart TVs and Kodi boxes also use internet connections and using VPNs can help you keep your streams private. To enable a VPN connection in your Smart TV/ Kodi box, you can configure it on the device, or configure it on the router itself.

Most quality VPNs offer the ability to configure your Smart TV with a VPN connection. The steps for configuration differs from VPN to VPN. To configure VPN on your router, refer to the section below.

How to Install VPN on a Router?

The best way to ensure that everything in your home goes through a VPN connection is to configure VPN on the router itself. With this, you will no longer have to install VPN in your individual mobile devices, TV, desktop, etc.

Make sure that your router is compatible with VPNs before you start the configuration. You can do this by checking the website of the manufacturer product on the router. The setup of VPN on a router differs from service to service. You will just have to fill up some standard forms and the process to configure VPNs on a router is pretty straightforward.

How to use the VPN & Tor Combination?

Tor is a service that routes traffic through a worldwide network of random nodes to conceal the user’s location and usage. Using a Tor hence makes it difficult to trace internet activity.

While Tor and VPN are different fundamentally, they can be used as a combination to ensure increased online privacy and security. Tor is 100% free, and there are no limitations when using the free version. To combine the advantages of Tor and VPN:

  1. Enable your VPN connection.
  2. Use the Tor browser to browse the internet.

The VPN connection and Tor web browser now run at the same time. This setup will be considerably slower than the standard VPN-only procedure of accessing the internet. However, the main advantage of this setup is that you get super privacy.

What are Kill Switches and IP Leaks?

Kill Switch

A kill switch automatically kills your internet connection if the safe, encrypted connection drops. A VPN with a kill switch is desirable as your device might attempt to access the internet with a normal connection if a connectivity issue arises in the VPN connection. Not having a kill switch can expose your data when your device switches from the VPN connection to the unprotected connection.

IP Leaks

IP Leaks can occur when your VPN connection fails to hide your IP when you browse the internet. Good VPN services have clever scripts that prevent IP leaks. However, sometimes the underlying issue is with your computer configuration, browser, extensions and the apps that you use. Hence, IP leaks are not entirely VPN problems.

Hence, a good VPN service has clever programming hacks to avoid IP leaks and has a kill switch mechanism that will keep you entirely secure.

When to use a VPN?

There are many advantages of using a VPN service:

• It allows you to access geo-blocked content by hiding your location.
• It hides your activity on the web.
• It encrypts the data you send over the internet.
• It helps you access any Wi-Fi through a protected connection.
• It makes you anonymous on the web.

In conclusion, a good, paid VPN is a good investment (at just 3-5$ a month) if privacy, anonymity, and security are important to you or your business.

When not to use a VPN?

There is no reason not to use a VPN service if online security and privacy are important to you. VPN is an additional layer of security over SSL protocols, antivirus programs, etc. There are not many downsides of using a VPN service as it is a cost-effective and efficient way to ensure online privacy and security. On the contrary, beware of using the so-called free VPN services.

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