What is a VPN?


How Do VPNs Work?

by Colin Aulds
Updated 03/10/2020


Introduction

VPNs are incredibly simple to understand.

VPN stands for 'virtual private network'. When you connect to a VPN, you are putting an extra server between yourself and the website you want to go to. This server changes your IP address and encrypts your browsing activity.

But that is very techy sounding answer that makes VPNs sound more complicated than they are. Let's use a metaphor to understand VPNs better.

How a VPN Works...In Plain English


Let's say you want to give your friend Webster a message. But, you don't want Webster to know you are the origin of the message. So you hire Victor to give Gary the message for you.

But Webster isn't the only person you are hiding from. You also don't want others who may be watching you to know the contents of the message or that you are the origin of it. So when you meet with Victor to tell him the message, you do it in a sound-proof room behind a curtain.

After you tell Victor the secret, he comes out from behind the curtain, and he goes to tell Webster the message.

What does this have to do with VPNs?

While this is not a perfect analogy, it does illustrate how VPNs work on the internet.

How do messages get passed on the internet when you don't use a VPN?


Most people who access the internet don't use a VPN. This is what they do.
  • They open their browsers (such as chrome or firefox).
  • They enter a web address (like facebook.com).
  • They hit enter.
You may find this series of steps familair. Perhaps this is how you also access the internet.

Using the internet this way is sort of like you going to your friend, Webster, directly and telling him your message.

What's wrong with that?

This is the part where the illustration starts to break down. When we want to give our friends a message, we don't usually want to keep them from knowing we are the ones who sent it. We also don't usually worry about who else can see or hear us.

However, when we access the internet, and we send messages to our friends, they aren't the only ones who see them. Other people we don't know see the message and see that we are the one who sent it. Some of these people are your internet service provider and the website you are visiting. They also include any third parties that the website and your ISP allow to listen in.

So...to prevent them from seeing our messages and knowing who we are, we need the internet equivalent of Victor from the illustration. We need a VPN.

Just like Victor, the VPN goes to the website (Webster) and gives it our message. Since the website only sees the VPN, it does not know about us. Just like Victor is the only person Webster sees. And finally, the VPN encrypts our connection to it so that our ISP can't monitor our browsing behavior.
In Summation:
  • You are you.
  • Webster is the website you are trying to access.
  • Victor is the VPN.
  • The sound-proof room behind the curtain is the encryption your VPN puts on your connection to it.

What Can I Do with a VPN?



Let's take a real use of a VPN now:

Let's say you live in China, but you want to watch youtube videos. If you use a standard connection, you are out of luck. The Chinese government has blocked Chinese citizens from viewing sites like google and youtube. The way they do this is by using what is called a firewall. Any Chinese IP address will be unable to access a list of other IP addresses.

If you live in China, and you want to access a site like Youtube, you will need to connect to Youtube from a server outside of China. This is where the VPN comes in. VPNs usually own or rent a large number of servers all over the world. Many of these servers will not be blocked by China.

Once you connect to one of these servers outside of China, here is what happens:
  1. You tell your VPN you want connect to Youtube.
  2. Youtube receives the connection and says (in computer speak), "Please choose a video to watch".
  3. Your VPN server then relays that message to you.
  4. You choose a video.
  5. Your VPN tells Youtube which video you chose. 
  6. Youtube streams the video to your VPN.
  7. Your VPN streams it to you.
This process of sending and receiving messages with your VPN in the middle continues like this until you are finished with your session.

This sounds complicated, but to you, it will feel just like a normal browsing experience. You won't notice any big difference from your normal experience on Youtube. The only notable difference is that site speeds may be slower. But even then, many VPNs are very fast these days and you won't notice speed issues.

The important takeway from this example is:
  • Youtube doesn't know you are in China.
  • China doesn't know you are browsing Youtube.
  • The only parties that know these facts are you and your VPN.

Things brings us to some of the potential issues with VPNs.

Problems with VPNs


VPNs aren't perfect.

In many cases, they can be blocked. Chinese citizens must cycle their VPNs once the government figures out which IP addresses belong to various VPN servers. Once those IP addresses are blocked, the VPN is mostly ineffective.

There is also the issue of trust. Sometimes the VPN is the bad guy. All the encryption in the world doesn't matter if your VPN is lying about its services.

Avast's Secureline VPN product is a great example of a betrayal of this trust. Avast is an anti-malware software company. Their software comes bundled with its VPN called 'Secureline'. However, Motherboard and PC Mag discovered that Avast was selling the browsing activity of its users to the highest bidder.

That means that if you were using Avast's VPN, they weren't keeping your browsing a secret. This is a huge issue because the VPN is supposed to protect your privacy.

Instead, it was doing the opposite.Finally, there is the issue of jurisdictions. If the server you are connected to is compromised by a government or a hacker, then your browsing is no longer secret.

This is why many users opt for a double VPN, which can help prevent some of these issues, but nothing is perfect.
Small contraptions like the Billfodl tend to hold up better in extreme elements, such as heat. We want the Billfodl to protect your recovery phrase in as many of these conditions as possible. The smaller we can make it the better.

Conclusion


There are other ways to hide your IP address and encrypt your connection by using services such as Tor. But that doesn't mean a VPN isn't for you.

There are many good reasons to use a VPN and we hope this short explanation has helped you to understand how they work a bit better.

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