What is a VPN: A Beginners Guide

A beginners guide to VPN, what is a VPN, how does a VPN work, do I need a VPN

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In this VPN guide, we will look at what a VPN is, how it works, and is it actually important to use one.  As this term gains popularity, more people are looking into a VPN for their private home.  Learn how easy they are to use.

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In this VPN guide, we look at what a VPN is, how it works, and is it actually important to be using one.  As this term gains popularity, more people are looking into a VPN for their private homes.  Learn how easy they are to use.

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What is a VPN?

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A Virtual Private Network (VPN)  is a technology that enables you to access the internet safely and privately by creating a private network from a public internet connection.  In other words, think of it as a Harry Potter invisibility cloak masking the link between you and the internet, in which no one else can enter to see or steal your data.  This is possible because a VPN masks your internet protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable.

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More importantly, a VPN service establishes a secure and encrypted connection to provide greater security than a Wi-Fi hotspot.  A side-benefit, but one which many users find the most useful, is that they allow you to pretend to be in a different country enabling you to access blocked content, or test sites from all over the world.  

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Why use a VPN?

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If you have every heard stories of people losing mass amounts of Bitcoin after making a transaction on a public Wi-Fi network, at an airport or Starbucks, you know how unsafe it is to surf the internet over a public network.  Perhaps you have experienced data loss, or identity theft.  Any time you connect over a public network, you leave yourself open to exposing your private information or browsing habits.

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In theory, a VPN would be a must for anyone worried about online security and privacy.  For instance, think about those times you have been on the go, browsing emails at a coffee shop, or checking your bank accounts.  Unless you have logged into a private Wi-Fi network that required a strong password, any data transmitted during that session may have been vulnerable to literally anyone else using that same network.

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The encryption and anonymity that a VPN provides helps protect your online activities: sending emails, shopping online, or paying bills. VPNs also help keep your web browsing anonymous.  Basically, if you connect to that same public network, AND use a VPN, you can be assured that no one else on that same network will be able to spot your traffic, or intercept your data.  

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Even if you accidentally connected to a honey pot Wi-Fi a fake WiFi built and renamed to resemble Starbucks or other public hotspots, they would still not be able to see your data.  

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There are a number of good reasons to use a VPN:

  • It encrypts your activity on the web.
  • It hides your activity from anyone who might be interested in it.
  • It hides your location, enabling you to access geo-blocked content (e.g. on Netflix and other sites).
  • Makes you more anonymous on the web.
  • Helps you keep the connection protected when using a public WiFi hotspot.

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Overall, use a VPN if your web privacy, security, and anonymity are important to you. Roughly $3-5 a month is a small price to pay for all of that.

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Limitations of a VPN

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Does a VPN protect your data from everybody?  No.  The VPN simply makes it much harder to find and intercept your data by disguising your IP address, however not hiding it permanently.  There will always be a digital footprint, no matter how convoluted you make it.  But why not make it harder to keep track of you, if you have that ability?

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The integrity of the company you are purchasing the VPN from is going to be a big difference between having no logs of you using the service, to having them go behind your back and sell your data to a 3rd party.  Even if they don’t sell your data, if a law enforcement comes knocking, expect them to become law abiding, throwing you to the wind.  So do your research.

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All VPN’s have their limitations.  There are multitudes of ways to track your online footprint.  Sites like Facebook, Amazon, Google use cookies that don’t expire even after you have left the site.  A VPN will not work against cookies, make sure you are practicing safe browsing.  There is a limitation on how much a VPN can actually disguise your browsing to make it anonymous.  If you 

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are really serious about browsing anonymously, you should be using Tor.

 

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The Good

Unlike VPNs, Tor bounces your traffic through several actual server nodes on the way to the destination.  Although it is not impossible to reverse, it does make it much harder to track down.  Essentially you would need a pretty big warrant, to be caught using Tor.  Tor is managed by a non-profit organization and is actually distributed for free.   Fun Fact:  Some VPN services will even connect to Tor via VPN, for additional security.

The Bad

It is important to keep in mind that most VPN services are not actually non-profit, philanthropic organizations.  They are there to make profit, thus act like a business.  This means that they have to protect their business, they need to respond to sub-poenas and warrants.  Keep this in mind when shopping for a VPN, making sure you know exactly what you are trying to disguise.  These VPN services also have their own bills to pay, and loans to pay back.  Do some research to make sure the company is not keeping too much data, and trying to make another profit behind your back.

Do your Research

This is why it’s so important to read the privacy policy for VPN services, and to find out where a VPN company is headquartered. NordVPN, for example, operates out of Panama, and is not subject to any laws that would require it to retain user data.

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The Good

Unlike VPNs, Tor bounces your traffic through several actual server nodes on the way to the destination.  Although it is not impossible to reverse, it does make it much harder to track down.  Essentially you would need a pretty big warrant, to be caught using Tor.  Tor is managed by a non-profit organization and is actually distributed for free.   Fun Fact:  Some VPN services will even connect to Tor via VPN, for additional security.

The Bad

It is important to keep in mind that most VPN services are not actually non-profit, philanthropic organizations.  They are there to make profit, thus act like a business.  This means that they have to protect their business, they need to respond to sub-poenas and warrants.  Keep this in mind when shopping for a VPN, making sure you know exactly what you are trying to disguise.  These VPN services also have their own bills to pay, and loans to pay back.  Do some research to make sure the company is not keeping too much data, and trying to make another profit behind your back.

Do your Research on VPN Services

 

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Because for-profit VPN services must abide by the local state and federal laws, it is very important to read the privacy policy for VPN services, and to find out where a VPN company is headquartered.  NordVPN, for example, operates out of Panama, and is not subject to any laws that would require it to retain user data.

Because VPN services are relatively new, they are sometimes target of federal investigations.  PureVPN came under fire after it released log information to federal investigators in regards to a cyberstalking case.  PureVPN seems to have updated its privacy policy as of May 2018.  

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“We DO NOT keep any record of your browsing activities, connection logs, records of the VPN IPs assigned to you, your original IPs, your connection time, the history of your browsing, the sites you visited, your outgoing traffic, the content or data you accessed, or the DNS queries generated by you.”

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Are VPN services  the perfect solution to protect you against any threat?  No.  The truth is, if someone targets you, and is willing to put forth some serious effort, they will absolutely get to you.  Keep this in mind, and make sure you are shopping with realistic expectations.  However, using tools like VPN services to obfuscate your online footprint, ensure you are not an easy target for mass surveillance is not a bad idea.

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Considerations

Here are some unforeseen consequences to using a VPN.  Chromecast, and other streaming protocols are sending data over your local network.  When you use a VPN service, this encrypts the information being sent, but will not tell your devices to decrypt the information.  The result is that your Laptop, Smart TV, and other streaming devices will not know what to do with the information.  These devices simply will not run along with a VPN.

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The solution is to move the VPN up a level and install it to the router.  This will encrypt all data as its leaving your private home, but will keep everything internal to your network unencrypted.  All of your devices connected to the network will work smoothly, but also have a secured connection.  For those with Netgear routers, Netgear has written some instructions on how to install a VPN to their routers.

Legal vs illegal vs Company Policy

Will a VPN allow you access to anything by cutting ties with the country you are in, and pretending to spawn from a different location?  No.  Netflix, for instance, is notorious for chasing down and shutting down the VPN services that would otherwise allow you to view materials from other countries.  This comes down to strict licensing requirements, and brings us back to our point that a VPN hides you, as long as no one is targeting you.  Netflix has a keen interest in keeping you away from their content in other Countries.

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Although some VPN companies strive to allow their customers access to streaming TV shows and movies, Netflix not only blocks most VPNs, but actively searches for ones that are circumventing its policy.  Basically, a VPN working today, may not be around tomorrow.   Keep this in mind as you are shopping around for VPN just to get around this rule!  

Another legal concern is Torrents.  Sites like thepiratebay.org 

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allow users to share files like movies, TV shows and other applications.  In the past, both Federal Agencies and ISP providers have reacted strongly to users pirating content.  With the addition of VPN services, the companies have felt the pressure from Federal Agencies.  Because of this, many VPN services have outright banned BitTorrenting.

Speed

Another concern about the use of VPN services is speed.  The whole idea behind a VPN is to jump through as many hoops as possible with the disguise of completely masking your IP address.  As a general rule, a VPN will increase the latency, or the time it takes a server to respond to your request, and for your computer to read the response.  This slows site, download, and upload speeds considerably.  During your research, and depending on your goal of using a VPN, look into which VPN services create a fast secure experience.

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Protect Yourself with a VPN

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Remember that the internet was just pieced together about 20 years ago.  Not much thought or coherence was put into security or privacy.  As time went on, equipment became a lot more sophisticated, as well as methods of extracting data.  The internet protocols have not fully caught up yet.  As of July, 2018 Google Chrome browser FINALLY made changes to show sites not using HTTPS:// protocol as ‘Not Secure’.  In fact, HTTPS was not even a word many fully understood, and certainly became widespread in the business realm very recently. 

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This leads to individuals fending for themselves by using their own Antivirus programs, and password generator apps, etc.  But this does not address how simple it is to mine your data, sell it to a third party, or even use that data to steal identities, clear out bank accounts etc.  Combine that with the publics generally low awareness of how to keep themselves safe, and you might be able to see you are clearly choosing your path of which side to be on.  Should you allow companies to continue to easily mine data, hackers to steal your information?  Or will you obfuscate the process, making things just a little harder for them, by choice?  The decision is yours.

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