Join Scott Simpson for an in-depth discussion in this video What's a VPN?, part of Browsing the Web Securely.
- [Instructor] A VPN, or a Virtual Private Network, is a technology that sends network traffic securely from one place to another. You can think of it like a pipeline, or a tube, that uses strong cryptography to take network traffic and protect it as it travels from one endpoint to another across networks. This can be from a device like a laptop or mobile phone, or from a device like a network router, if it's supported, to put all the traffic on a network through the VPN. VPNs are very commonly used by universities and companies to allow people at home or on the road access to resources that are otherwise only available on their own protected networks.
These VPNs allow researchers and knowledge workers to transmit sensitive or confidential information to trusted systems without having to be onsite. Though while this technology used to be mostly reserved for organizations who could go through the technical steps to setup the service, there are many providers of easy-to-use VPN services that are worth looking at for personal use. A VPN is useful for anyone who doesn't trust a network that they're using. The classic example is someone using an open Wi-Fi access point at a coffee shop.
Nothing against coffee shops of course. If you're providing internet access to the general public, it's inconvenient to have to explain to them how to spell your password, so it's easier to just leave the network open to everyone. On such an open network, it's harder to control who's using it, and what they're doing with it, and it's easier for malicious people to read the traffic flying through the air. That doesn't mean that a Wi-Fi network with a password is automatically trustworthy however. Neither is a wired network automatically trustworthy. The point is that generally speaking you don't know if you can trust a network, so it's sensible to take steps to bring your own security along with you.
A VPN sets up a network tunnel for traffic between your computer and a remote server. Sometimes these VPN connections are what are called partial tunnels. Only certain requests go through the VPN. That's common for business and university networks, where access to a resource is granted, so people outside their network can use it. The other kind of connection is called a full tunnel, where all of the traffic from a device travels over the VPN connection. Obviously this uses more bandwidth and so many businesses and organizations don't want to bear the bandwidth burden of their employees or members using their internet connection to browse the web or stream video, but if you're using a less than trustworthy network, a full tunnel is exactly what you want.
Regardless of what's being observed on the network, your traffic travels through its cryptographic pipeline to a server that you do trust, where it then goes out to the internet. It can be complex to setup such a server, and in the next chapter we'll take a look at that. Usually, when you're using a VPN, you can still access resources on the local network, so that traffic doesn't flow through the tunnel. The VPN can tell what should go where. In this chapter I'll cover a few consumer-focused easy-to-use VPN providers that offer this capability. Before we look at the options though I want to make an important point.
I've mentioned that there's no silver bullet or single solution for ensuring your privacy is protected online, and the same thing applies to VPN providers. Using a VPN basically shifts trust from one place to another. It gives you a very secure connection between your computer or mobile device, and whatever is at the other end. You're moving the trust from the network that your device is connected to off to a server somewhere on the internet. That other end is probably in a huge data center somewhere, but usually someone else controls that machine and that network.
One of the biggest questions around public VPN providers is the leap of faith in trusting that the organization you're paying to provide privacy isn't themselves observing, monetizing, and selling your traffic. You are, after all, delivering your browsing activity directly to them through a dedicated pipe. So this is one of those things you need to decide whether you personally trust. My opinion is that large commercial VPN providers have a lot to lose if they're discovered to be selling customer information. So hopefully we can take them at their word that they're protecting our privacy.
It's also my opinion that any free VPN providers should be avoided. There are costs to running a VPN service, and as they say, if you're not paying, you're the product. So it's reasonable to think that free VPN providers are doing something with your information that benefits them financially. Or maybe not, that's the issue. We as consumers can't know for sure. The commercial VPN providers we'll take a look at in the next videos are all paid solutions, and they all have support for computers and mobile devices of some kind.
Think of these videos as a tour, not something to follow along with step by step. After you've watched all of them, do some research on your own and decide if one is right for you. There's an excellent resource for comparing VPN providers at a site called That One Privacy Site, and I encourage you to explore that chart and understand what's being measured.
- Selecting a VPN provider
- Installing a VPN
- Setting up your own personal VPN
- Browsing the internet with Tor