How Does a VPN Work? 

How Does a VPN Work?

The internet isn’t known for prioritizing your privacy. Social media proves that it is very much the opposite. But using a virtual private network (VPN), you can protect yourself from some more harmful issues. 

VPN usage increased by almost 30% in 2020. Regardless of why that usage increased, the point is this: VPNs are helpful for online security. Below, you’ll find out how this privacy platform works.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a network of servers meant to encrypt your data and hide your location. You would usually access these servers through a dedicated client. However, the client is not the VPN; the servers are. 

VPNs create a secure tunnel between you and the desired server. The secure tunnel is encrypted, scrambling it into a random combination of numbers and letters. Those receiving the data receive instructions on what you want but no further information. 

In this way, you can hide your IP address, location, and other personal data. This prevents hackers from locating you and unwanted advertisers from gathering your data. Sometimes, you can falsify this information through VPN obfuscation.

These VPNs are available across multiple devices. You can get a VPN for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, or Android. Installation can be done through an app or manual setup (through network settings)

VPNs rely on multiple VPN protocols that provide instructions on how VPNs should work. The first protocols date back to the early 2000s, some being developed over the past few years. 

How your VPN works (step-by-step)

Regardless of your chosen protocol, VPNs work the same way. Here’s the step-by-step process:

Step One: You send a request through your VPN server

How Does a VPN Work?  Google Example

Once your VPN is on, it works in the background. You send an access request to the other party, whether browsing or streaming. Through a VPN, that access request is partially obscured. 

The first stop of any request starts by going through your chosen VPN server. Once it reaches the server, your data is encrypted. 

This step happens before your data reaches these sources:

  • Your internet service provider
  • The server you are speaking with 
  • Any public WiFI (assuming you are using it) 

If you are using your home network, install a router-based VPN. In these cases, the connection from your computer to the router is unencrypted. Having both a client and router-based VPN can provide you with more flexible security in this case. 

Step Two: The VPN server decrypts your data

How Does a VPN Work?  Data translation

For the VPN server to understand you, it needs to decrypt your data. It does this by having a unique cipher, or key, telling the server how your data was encrypted. 

How your data encrypts changes typically depending on these factors:

  • The encryption cipher your VPN uses (a fancy way to say “instruction manual”)
  • The VPN protocol that your client makes use of (this limits the kinds of ciphers your protocol can use)

The decryption process happens in the background. So you won’t see any of it. 

Decryption is also why you should avoid older VPN protocols. For example, PPTP connections use 128-bit encryption software, which is outdated. Hackers cracked the PPTP system back in 2012.

Modern encryption protocols like OpenVPN use AES-256 encryption. This is considered the gold standard, as no system can crack it. Even if you could brute force it, AES-256 (also used by IKEv2 and some L2TP applications) requires impossibly high computing power. 

Other modern protocols, like WireGuard, use advanced Elliptic Curve systems. The use of quantum mathematics creates an impossible number of potential encryption outcomes. Thus, quantum computers are necessary to dream of cracking these.  

Step Three: The server sends your data after re-encryption

How Does a VPN Work?  Sending information

After the VPN server decrypts your information, it understands what you want. At this point, the VPN server takes what you want to do and re-encrypts the message. 

The commands of your message remain the same. But much of the unnecessary personal information is redacted behind encryption. Those who use encryption intend to have the information translated. 

The alternative situation is hashing, which is a more advanced hiding method. However, how impossible it is to crack makes it more secure. After all, if you don’t intend to get the message back, you don’t need to make it cipher friendly. Hashing is mainly used for passwords as a result. Having an exposed hash key is safer than an exposed password. 

Step Four: The response from the internet is sent back to you, and you decrypt it

Once your chosen site processes your request, the data gets sent back to the external VPN server. The server takes the data, encrypts it a third time, and sends it back to you. 

For your computer to understand the data, it must be decrypted. So once your VPN software receives the data, it translates it for you for the last time.

This limits the exposure of your information to five times:

  • Before the data is sent
  • Once the data reaches the VPN server for the first time
  • A partial exposure occurs (your request) once the data comes from the source
  • The VPN server receives your data for the second time
  • Your VPN software decrypts your information, so your computer understands the request

Having five stages of exposure (two of them being to yourself) is the VPN solution. It is why people use the encryption tunnel. The amount of data exposed in transit between your device and the service you want is astounding. 

The other two exposures relate to your VPN service. In this way, you need to ensure your VPN provider is trustworthy. 

Why should I get a VPN?

So, now that you know the process, it paints a better picture. Reducing your exposure is crucial when remaining safe online. Virtual private networks assist by limiting your exposures. 

Below are specific cases where you can use your VPN: 

Reason #1: Protection against cybercriminals and tyrannical governments

Cybercriminals and questionable governments have many reasons to steal your data. If you live in a restrictive data country, a VPN can help you reclaim your freedom.

Cybercriminals use the dark web to resell data that they find online. In this way, they might take information using different attack types. Here are some examples of attacks VPNs prevent:

  • Evil Twin Attacks occur when public WiFis are duped. So when you think you are connecting to a WiFi hotspot, you are connecting to someone’s private network. Without a VPN, your data connection logs are exposed.
  • Man-in-the-Middle attacks happen when you make use of an external server or service. The host in the middle relays the connections between two sources but takes essential data from both.

Whether hackers or government agencies steal the data is irrelevant, it is your data. So you have a right to defend it, regardless of who wants it.

Reason #2: Bypassing geo-blocking

When you bypass geo-blocked content, you take your media rights back. Overcoming this block has numerous benefits, whether you are traveling or don’t want to pay for your seventh streaming service. 

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prevents streaming services from providing unapproved content. After all, the users have to pay for rights to the content. It is why your favorite Netflix shows aren’t staying on the platform. 

Netflix might have rights to this show in another country. By pretending you live in that country, you get access to programming for which you would typically have to pay extra. 

There is no specific law against VPN use. You’ll also find the same regarding streaming media you don’t have access to. Often, the host of the media takes the heat. You can see examples of this when popular torrenting sites go down. 

Reason #3: Protection during smartphone use 

The average smartphone user puts their entire lives into their phones. Edward Snowden, a well-known NSA whistleblower, said it well in this interview with The Wire:

 Almost all smartphones use operating systems made by two of the largest companies in the world: Google and Apple. Google gathers large amounts of data on everything. If you have a Smartphone, Google can probably pinpoint where you live. Apple is not much better.

While there are smartphone permissions you can adjust, those are ineffective at addressing all issues. Still, you should disable all the permissions you can to remain safe. 

By installing a mobile VPN, you can protect your smartphone data with greater ease. The apps you download are full of programmatic advertising. By hiding your connections behind a VPN, you can take control of the data others use against you.

Reason #4: Protecting your online browsing

Owning and using a browser is just part of life. Without it, you’ll find it pretty hard to access the internet. However, that doesn’t mean you have to give up everything. 

Your browser history is one such example. Exposing that to the world might not be ideal. Using a privacy browser that automatically deletes your history can prevent this.

However, this doesn’t protect you. Advertisers and criminals can still find out more by using browser fingerprinting. Much like device fingerprinting, the browser contains details on your computer.

This might include the following:

  • Your operating system
  • Computer specs
  • The browser you use
  • Your IP address 

By gathering this information, hackers can pretend to be you. Using their geo-spoofing tools, they can change themselves to your location, use your information, and pretend to be coming from a computer that seems yours. 

The website or service you access might not question their entry through this. After all, it looks like you, so why shouldn’t they allow that connection in? It’s a dangerous game to play that can overcome two-factor authentication.

If you have VPN active before this issue arises, hackers won’t have this information. The service you access won’t have this information either. You might think this will need to log in more, but first-party cookies prevent this issue. This is just another way that you can protect your online privacy.  

Reason #5: Online anonymity

Remaining anonymous online might seem impossible. You don’t have to start by being born in a forest. After all, there’s no reason that the connection you use needs to know it is you.

While you can’t avoid some of this when paying for internet, you can hide data from your service provider. Your internet provider has no right to view your internet history. But having an account with them will mean they will know you use the internet.

Beyond that, the online services you use can be completely anonymous. Services like ProtonMail and the Tor Browser allow you to be completely anonymous, even when creating accounts. 

Different kinds of VPNs

As stated earlier, not all VPNs are made the same way. Here are the different types you should be aware of:

Client VPNs

The most common VPN you might be aware of is a client-based VPN. This requires specific VPN software to be installed on your laptop, desktop, or smartphone. 

You might also call this a client-to-server VPN. It encrypts all internet traffic coming from and from your computer. 

For private users, the servers are in far-away countries. You might connect to a server in the United Kingdom because you want to check out some Sky Sports from your hotel room in the United States. 

The server might also be more localized. Businesses can use VPN systems to create secure network tunnels between non-business PCs and business resources. This situation is better known as a remote access VPN.

Router VPNs

A router-based VPN is specific to routers. You can choose to install your VPN on the router using third-party firmware or buy a VPN router. Only one choice requires a bit of technical know-how. 

Router VPNs are great because they allow you to secure your home network. So instead of needing to encrypt each device individually, you can encrypt all of them at once.

If you have smart home technology, it is a must-have. Vulnerabilities behind the Internet of Things (IoT) are real. Failing to secure your smart home results in unwanted exposure.

SSL VPNs

An SSL stands for Secure Socket Layer. Numerous websites make use of SSL protocol for security. You can identify this in the websites you access by spotting the “S” at the end of “HTTP.”

For an SSL VPN to work, you need an HTML-5-ready browser. It is a standard part of business VPN packages when you don’t want to put a heavy system load on the computer. 

SSL VPNs provide solutions for businesses that don’t have enough equipment. In this way, a single piece of hardware can represent multiple virtual machines. 

Browser Extension VPNs

Numerous VPNs offer browser extensions. They work to encrypt traffic to and from your browser. Since most people use their browsers, it’s a handy solution.

The drawback of sticking to a browser-based VPN is that your non-browser data isn’t encrypted. VPN clients exist outside your browser, which is far more effective if you want to hide your app data. 

Browsers work in situations where your operating system might not be VPN-friendly. Chromebooks use Chrome OS, which doesn’t follow the same update schedule as Android OS (despite being relatively similar). Due to weaker popularity, a Chrome-based browser extension can be helpful here. 

Site-to-site VPNs

Site-to-site VPNs are another kind of company-specific VPN. As a non-consumer VPN, you see these most often in use with larger companies. 

You’ll also often see them used in intranet applications. Intranet servers are secure servers that are similar to internet applications. For example, your company might have a web page for accessing pay stubs. But this access is unnecessary (and dangerous) for external users.

Business VPN providers handle the largest business scale work here, which doesn’t include many VPN providers. Businesses who manage to need VPNs at this level typically enjoy the extra security. 

What to look for in a good VPN

Still struggling to find the best VPN. Here’s what you need to look for:

Outside of Five/Nine/Fourteen Eyes Alliances

Members of these “eyes alliances” agree with each other to share data. The agreements have revealed that some “no log” VPN providers don’t follow this protocol. By choosing a VPN that isn’t among the fourteen countries, you avoid exposing your data. These non-eyes locations are often privacy havens.

No-Logs Policy

A VPN company with a no-logs policy promises not to store your data. Consider this an element of their privacy policy that benefits you. Avoid them if there is nothing specific about what they do with your info.

Third-party Audits

VPN providers who refuse third-party audits might have something to hide. In the case of some providers, this hidden side often involves the theft of customer information. 

Military-grade encryption

Any VPN that doesn’t specify its protocols should be addressed. Protocols tell you whether the company offers military-grade encryption. This level of encryption is comparable to those that governments use.

No history of leaks 

Does the company you want to go through have a history of leaks? DNS leaks can lead to the exposure of your actual IP address. In some cases, account data is stolen, and you put yourself at risk. 

Stay safe online by using The Fast VPN

The Fast VPN provides the best protection for all available devices. We’ve got you covered whether you need smartphone coverage or coverage for your desktop. Download it today to discover how our VPN can change your browsing experience. 

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