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  • Writer's pictureMichael Paulyn

What is a VPN? Part 2

Understanding the importance of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) is crucial in today's digital age, where privacy and security are paramount. Ultimately, VPNs are a powerful tool that gives power back to internet users, allowing anyone to enhance their online privacy to avoid snoops, unwanted advertisers, and cybercriminals.

This blog dives into how VPNs work, their significance in helping to safeguard our online activities, and why they're indispensable tools for a world that's ever more digitalized.  

How does a VPN Function?

VPNs function by directing a device's internet traffic into a specially configured remote server network managed by the VPN service. As a result, the data that travels through a VPN connection encrypts the user's internet traffic, concealing its true identity behind a virtual IP address and disguising all online activity.  

What is the Purpose of a VPN?

Rather than transmitting your internet traffic (searches, visited pages, uploads, downloads) directly to your Internet Service Provider (ISP), a VPN initially directs your traffic through a VPN server. As a result, when your data reaches the internet, it appears to originate from the VPN server, not your device.

Without a VPN, your IP address — a unique numerical identifier for your network — is visible on the web. A VPN conceals your IP address as an intermediary and redirects your traffic. Additionally, it establishes encryption, or a protective tunnel around your identity, during connection. This combination of the VPN server and encryption tunnel prevents your ISP, governments, hackers, and others from monitoring your online activities.

What Does a VPN Help Hide?

VPNs reroute all your traffic at the operating system level through alternative servers. Consequently, your online activities and physical location remain hidden as you browse the web. When you access a website via a VPN server, the origin of your connection appears as one of the numerous VPN routers — termed a proxy server — rather than your own. Thus, website owners and potential eavesdroppers cannot ascertain your identity.

While a VPN ensures your internet connection's privacy, security, and anonymity, it does not eliminate the risk of malware and phishing attacks. Hence, while it minimizes hacking and online tracking exposure, even the most reliable VPNs do not replace top-rated antivirus software.

How does the Encryption Tunnel Operate?

Encryption involves converting regular text into an unreadable code. A key, or decryptor, is required to unscramble the text and restore it to readable form. Only your device and the VPN provider possess the decryption key when utilizing a VPN. Therefore, anyone attempting to monitor your activities would only encounter a jumble of characters.

Encryption comes in three primary forms: hashing, symmetric cryptography, and asymmetric cryptography. Each type scrambles your data and metadata to render it useless to others.

Various VPN providers offer differing levels of encryption strength. However, premier encryption software employs multiple methods to safeguard your privacy. For instance, some VPNs use a blend of hashing, symmetric cryptography, and asymmetric cryptography for 256-bit AES encryption — the same standard utilized by banks and the military.

VPNs enhance protection using a DNS (domain name system) resolution system that translates numerical IP addresses into text-based URLs. However, cybercriminals can exploit DNS requests to track online movements. A VPN's DNS resolution system counteracts this threat by applying additional encryption to all IPv4 traffic from your device while turning off IPv6 requests.

Are VPNs Safe to Use?

VPN safety hinges on utilizing a reputable VPN provider correctly. Reliable VPN providers prioritize user privacy and maintain transparent privacy policies. Conversely, unsafe VPN providers may covertly monitor and log online activities, possess security vulnerabilities leading to data breaches, or sell user data to advertisers.

However, despite a VPN protecting internet connection privacy, security, and anonymity, users remain susceptible to malware and phishing attacks. Thus, while VPNs mitigate hacking and online tracking risks, they do not supplant top-rated antivirus software.

Is a VPN Really That Necessary?

 A VPN is essential for various reasons, primarily privacy and access. Public Wi-Fi networks in coffee shops and airports pose security risks, as hackers on the same network can easily monitor activities. A VPN functions as an invisibility cloak, shielding all activities on your device and safeguarding against threats like evil twin attacks.

Moreover, VPNs enable users to conceal their activities from ISPs, governments, and advertisers, mitigating censorship, price discrimination, and media geo-blocks.

In 2017, the US repealed net neutrality, potentially enabling ISPs to collect and sell personal data, slow down connections, and discriminate against internet users. A VPN blocks ISPs from viewing browsing history and personal data, thus preserving privacy and security.

Hungry for more? Join me each week, where I'll break down complex topics and dissect the latest news within the cybersecurity industry and blockchain ecosystem, simplifying the tech world. 



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