“You hear a lot about VPNs these days. To be honest, a lot of it is from advertising and sometimes it’s not quite right or honest. I’ll try to explain how it works.”

A VPN is a virtual private network. It allows to create a secure connection between two distant devices. This technology has the role of reinforcing security, a VPN is also used to bypass certain restrictions (especially location restrictions) imposed by websites or other online services.

How does it work?

VPNs are based on the encryption of all communications between a client machine (your computer, tablet or smartphone) and a remote machine (the VPN server) in order to get out on the Internet. To put it simply, the data coming out of your computer is encrypted and then sent through a tunnel where only the VPN server has the key to decrypt the content. It is a simple application that you install, which will encrypt the data to the server.

Communication between the client and the server in a VPN

In a VPN network, the server acts as a relay between the tunnel and the Internet. Between your computer and the server, the tunnel is encrypted; between the VPN server and the web, the data may not be. When you connect to a website and your VPN application is activated, the information is sent to your ISP which believes that your final destination is the VPN server. When the VPN server receives the information, it decodes it and understands what your real destination (on the internet) is and sends you there. For the website, you are the VPN server. That’s why if the VPN server is located in another country, the Internet will “believe” that you are from that country.

The user experience

From the user’s point of view, the connection via a VPN tunnel is completely transparent. You can carry out your usual tasks (browsing the Internet, checking emails, watching streams, etc.) without noticing the difference. Of course, connection speeds may vary depending on the VPN provider. On the other hand, in the eyes of the world, it is as if you are connecting from the VPN server in question. This is actually useful for accessing geographically restricted services.

Why use a VPN?

The advantages of using a VPN are numerous, but the real interest lies in the fact that without a VPN almost all the data exchanged between your machine and the Internet are within reach of anyone with access to the intermediate network equipment (public wifi, Internet service provider, etc.). So by securing your connection with a VPN, the data exchanged will be unreadable and inoperable for any prying eyes. This avoids “man-in- the-middle” attacks which we will talk about in other articles.

Moreover, as explained above with a VPN you have the possibility to pretend that you are connecting from another location in order to access services normally unavailable (video on demand, streaming, banking services, etc.). Of course this is not always legal, check beforehand.

How to use a VPN network?

With the services offered by VPN providers, no special computer skills are required to establish a
connection. In most cases, the user is asked to download a software program (or a mobile application as the case may be). Then, in two or three clicks, you have a virtual network ready to use.

But like everything in life, it is not so simple…

A VPN does not make you anonymous! It simply tunnels the data between you and the VPN server. However, this data once accessible to the web server (for example) contains information about the computer used. To make it simple, when you browse a website through a web browser, the browser collects information about you and your computer (cookies) and this data is sent and processed by the web server in order to establish profiling and usage analysis. So the web server can know who you are, even if you use a VPN to change your IP address. By this mechanism, it can also know that you are using a VPN because the information will not be consistent.

Without VPN, we are not safe from a possible hacking?

The VPN acts more as a kind of extra barrier in terms of computer security, so even with VPN you are not safe from hacking. A VPN can be very useful, but it depends on what you want to protect yourself from. A VPN is not a miracle…

A true protection must be an ecosystem that encompasses the device used until the output on the Internet, anticipating most of the flaws and other weak points between the participants of the system: the device, the user, the server etc.

“The next article will talk about which VPN to choose, what are the open-source alternatives, etc.”