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What is a VPN? The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

What is a VPN? The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide
Dec 23, 2021
In 2020 over 150 million people were affected by data breaches. It was a slow year for stolen data, but this is still a shocking number.
Berktug Mutlu
In 2020 over 150 million people were affected by data breaches. It was a slow year for stolen data, but this is still a shocking number. The point is this: protecting your personal data needs to be your priority. You can do this by investing in a VPN.
So, what is a VPN? A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a private tunnel to access the public internet. A VPN protects your information from internet service providers, criminals, and the government.
Below, we will discuss everything you need to know about VPNs to make an informed decision. Is a VPN right for you? Find out the answer to this question below.

What Does a VPN Do?

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A VPN helps you out by doing the following:
  • It prevents third-party groups from accessing your data.
  • VPNs enable you to access a network tunnel to a server in an alternate location.
  • A VPN encrypts your data into a garbled mess that third parties cannot translate.
  • It protects you from your ISP, government agencies, and would-be criminals
  • A VPN hides your IP address behind another server IP address
  • It fools websites into thinking you are from another country to access blocked content
  • It circumvents blocked content is heavily restrictive countries

How Does a VPN Protect your IP Address and Privacy?

A VPN gives you a new IP address. Typically, the network locations and servers you connect to are nearby (or overseas) places. Where you want your connection is up to you.
The new IP address you have shows the “fake” location to whoever is trying to access your data. So a VPN masks your current IP address and replaces it with a new one.
This IP concealment, combined with data encryption, protects most forms of data from escaping. While this won’t help you if you have a Google account logged in or an active Facebook profile, it will protect other forms of data.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

You need a VPN to defend yourself from those who use your information without your permission. For example, selling your information to third-party entities so that they might send you spam emails.
Data packets travel back and forth between you (the client) and the server (website, game, torrent connection, etc.) anytime you do anything with the internet. Typically, those packets contain information that enables third-party entities to use your information against you.
The most common use of these is programmatic advertising, a directly targeted form of advertising based on data. For example, shopping for new boots on Amazon is typically followed by advertisements on the same (and similar) boots on other sites.
You might not like them using this information, which is where a VPN comes in.
Protecting this data can be incredibly helpful when using public, unencrypted networks. For example, you might want to access your local wi-fi at Starbucks, but you have no idea who might be watching this data.
The alternative use of VPNs is to circumvent government sponsorship. Countries like China are well known for hiding “unwelcome ideas.” If you don’t believe in government censorship, VPNs are one way to get around it.
The Five Eyes (FVEY) alliance allows countries to take your data for government tracking, even in the US. If you don’t feel that government entities and ISPs have a right to your data, a VPN is one way to protect yourself.

The History of VPNs

The first VPN was made by Gurdeep Singh-Pall, who started development on the first VPN protocol: the Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). You can trace it back to Microsoft in 1996, where these tunneling protocols were a method of encrypting a single connection between computers.
The early days only had the small-scale peer-to-peer VPN, one of the earliest forms. This peer-to-peer system is primarily useful when protecting corporate internets with simple LAN server connections. We will go through other VPN forms later in this article.
By 2000, the specification for this system was widespread, enabling anyone to use VPNs on their home computer. However, it didn’t reach peak popularity until after 2013, where Edward Snowden released numerous classified NSA documents related to the FVEY and monitoring efforts.
The exposure was related to several ethical concerns about government monitoring and those behind these activities. Eventually, it led to a much higher emphasis on protecting personal data from government watchdogs and third-party groups.

What are the Benefits of a VPN Connection?

Here is a quick roundup of the benefits of using a VPN connection:
  • It protects your online activities and personal data from people who don’t need to know
  • VPNs provide security when using public wi-fi networks
  • It provides you with a secure connection to sites that might not be secure
  • It enables you to use a VPN tunnel to connect to previously restricted content
  • VPNs protect you against identity theft when used correctly
  • It covers your actual location from hackers and ISPs
  • It gives you access to more TV programs on Netflix, Android TV, and other networks
There are numerous reasons to set up a secure connection with a VPN. Provided you don’t expect this security to apply when logged in on Facebook or Google; you are working with the right expectations.

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN works by following this multi-step process:
  1. Your VPN software encrypts your data and sends it to a VPN server
  1. The VPN server unencrypts your data and re-encrypts it. The re-encrypted data contains new information from the new server.
  1. The re-encrypted data returns to you and leaves your VPN software.
  1. The VPN software decrypts enough of your data to be usable (like location requests).
  1. The useless encrypted data goes to all who would generally request it, still granting you access to the internet without providing personal information.
A good VPN service can offer online security, anonymity, and freedom to access previously restricted information through this. A VPN securely connects through multiple VPN protocols, which we will discuss later.
The trade-off is that you have to trust the VPN service enough to use your data without selling it. So always pay attention to any service’s privacy policy regarding your data.

How to set up a VPN?

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There are two forms of setting up a VPN:
  • Downloading software
  • Using your computer’s limited features
In most cases, you’ll find that downloading VPN programs is your safest option. This download process is typical because these include a variety of location-based services hiding your IP address.
Windows is not built with hiding your information in mind. Microsoft is another large, data-driven company.
Regardless, we will go through both options below:

Establishing a Built-In VPN Connection on a Windows PC

Under both Windows 10 and 11, you can follow these steps to establish a VPN connection:
  1. Click the “Start” button and access Network and Internet Settings
  1. Find the tab that says “VPN.”
  1. Click “Add a VPN Connection”
  1. Choose “Windows” for VPN provider
  1. Enter the address for your VPN server
  1. Type in the sign-in info for your credentials to access the server
Of course, this assumes that you are accessing an off-site server. Typically, this means your company has an internal VPN to encrypt all outgoing and incoming data.
The alternative option is to have a server located somewhere in the country to house this software. Because this isn’t everyday use, you’ll need to install a third-party application like FastVPN.
Below are the steps you can follow for establishing this connection on your computer.

How to Install a VPN Connection on Your Computer (PC or Mac)

To get started using almost any VPN connection, you can follow these four steps:
  1. Download and install a VPN service that works for your device
  1. Open the VPN app and familiarize yourself with the interface
  1. Find out what server appeals to you and click the connect button
  1. Let the VPN allow you to connect to the new location
The connect button will select a server based on the fastest available by default. This typically means the closest, so you should be able to scroll through various server location options (depending on your app).

How to Install a VPN Connection on Your Smartphone (Android or iOS)

Whether you install your app on Android or iOS, the process is the same. The difference is that you will want to start your exploration at your application storefront.
FastVPN has both apps for Android phones and iOS.

How do VPN Servers Operate? (Step By Step)

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Here is a step-by-step on what VPN servers do with your data:
  1. The VPN server takes your computer data and aligns it with account data to be sure you can access their services
  1. The VPN server needs to decrypt your data to confirm it is you.
  1. Once confirmed, the VPN server makes it seem like your data is now their data by replacing your IP address based on location and other information.
  1. The VPN re-encrypts your data using an algorithm to determine how to scramble your data. (this can be something as simple as switching out letters for other letters)
  1. Once the data is re-encrypted using the internal program, it returns to your VPN application, where it partially decrypts again to determine where it needs to go (what website or server to access).
The encryption process is known as a cipher, which the algorithm uses to understand how to encrypt. Decryption is the process of applying that cipher to find out what the data translates to.
In the case of peer-to-peer connections (which aren’t VPN applications), the data encrypts using a program from the computer. Because this is an older form of communication, encryption is typically weak and easy to crack using the right programs.
The process of extending that private network (through servers of multiple computers/clients) is known as VPN tunneling.
So when thinking of a VPN, think of a very long tunnel. Nobody can drive through the tunnel wall because there are no intersections. However, you can move into the tunnel without worrying about another car. Another automobile might come crashing into yours and take some of your vehicle (data) with them without the tunnel.

Different Types of VPNs

There are many VPNs, with the two most popular being remote and site-to-site. However, there are more VPN types we will discuss below. We will start with the basics:

Remote Access VPNs / Client VPNs

Remote-access VPNs are when you access a virtual private network via an application on your computer. Through installation as software on your computer, they work to encrypt all forms of data.
A client VPN can be beneficial if you access the internet through means beyond a browser (i.e., torrent sites, gaming, applications). Be sure that the application is on before you access any online material.
Another form of Client VPN is the mobile version associated with installing a smartphone application. These smartphone application VPNs are no different from any Client VPN but might have extra features if you look in the settings.

Site-To-Site (Client-to-Client) VPNs

Site-to-site VPNs are unique connections set up between two clients. Typically, no server is involved, as it involves a direct connection between your computer and the next computer to secure data.
These VPNs are typically best with secure data that you should only access in limited scopes. You won’t see these at coffee shops or available through a hotspot.
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