What Is a VPN? Start Concealing Your Online Identity

what is a VPN?

When we consider the concept of prepping, rarely do we target technology. But our technological-driven world means that we should most definitely consider such. This is why we have a dedicated VPN section to educate and discuss ways to lower modern tech risks.

In our “what is a VPN” guide, we will discuss all the basics about using a VPN. There are numerous VPN benefits. You need to understand what a VPN is first.

VPN Basics – What Is a VPN?

A VPN allows you to connect to any ISP anonymously. Well, mostly (we’ll get to that).

Let’s consider how your Internet connection works both at home and in public spaces. And please keep in mind, you’re almost always in an environment that’s trying to connect one of your devices to the Internet (think of your phone, for example, while browsing your local grocery store).

What Does a VPN Do?

A VPN encrypts your Internet connection, drastically reducing the amount of information the ISP (Internet Service Provider), websites, or lurking hackers can view.

When VPN encryption is live, it’s happening in an ongoing fashion.

Let’s begin simply.

A VPN immediately hides your IP address. Concealing your IP happens because your Internet activities begin routing through a remote server when you turn on a VPN.

In the VPN settings, you may choose your server’s location. Maybe you decide to use a Denver, Colorado server, or even a server as far away as New Zealand. Perhaps the VPN auto-selects a server from anywhere in the world.

No matter how the remote server selection is made, your IP address reflects that server location and then all your Internet activity follows.

You probably use local search a lot. For example, maybe you type, “Mexican restaurants near me.” When you do, you likely get a list of Mexican restaurants in decent proximity to your current location. This is because local search utilizes your current location, which is tied to your IP.

When your VPN is on, the local search will reflect where the VPN’s server location resides.

Many of us enjoy the local search. We aren’t using a VPN to thwart local search convenience. I use the example because I believe it helps convey the core message of what a VPN does. Fear not; if you perform a local search under the protection of a VPN, you can simply type in your location.

No one is using a VPN to mess up their local search. However, if Google search can’t figure out your location, then how could a hacker? How could your ISP?

They can’t.

In addition, a VPN encrypts your traffic. So when you make a request (aka type in a web page or submit a search), that request is encrypted.

Why is this a big deal?

Let’s forget the hackers for a moment. Instead, let’s talk about your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Many ISPs track your Internet activity, for example, web pages you visit or searches you perform. Feel uneasy yet?

You should. Your data translates into a big money for ISPs. They can sell this data to the highest bidders.

See our handy graphic that hopefully simplifies the matter.

what is a vpn?

When you turn on your VPN, the VPN server becomes the beginning source of your Internet behavior. The ISP can’t record the activity because the VPN should route your Internet activity through a remote server.

Let’s put forth two simple examples.

You are at home. You search for “women’s leather boots” on Google. Comcast, your ISP, logs this search on its servers and connects the search activity to your account. Your Comcast account contains more detailed information about you, such as your gender, full name, address, etc. That’s a lot of data. Now, they can sell that data to a company. That company can then market “women’s leather boots” or “leather boot cleaner” to you in many other ways.

Now, you are at the grocery store. You don’t even realize it, but your phone auto-connects to the grocery store’s wireless. Of course, the auto-connection may be due to your past connection to this same Internet account. All the same, you reach down and open your bank app to see if your work check has cleared. But unbeknownst to you, a shady hacker lurks on the cereal aisle and sees you log on. Now the hacker begins trying to extract those banking details, or your text messages, etc.

A good VPN helps thwart both of these events.

Benefits of a VPN

A VPN conceals your location.

VPN servers act as a buffer between your actual location and your ISP, hackers. A VPN conceals your IP address. When the VPN is active, your location appears to derive from the VPN server’s location. It’s that simple.

A VPN encrypts your data.

If you want to read data transferred from a VPN server, you’ll need to decrypt it. And good luck. While the best VPNs offer better encryption services, almost all VPNs offer decent encryption. This means that your Internet activities are concealed from public Wi-Fi. This goes back to our grocery store example.

A VPN allows you to view regional-restricted content.

This point is considered a VPN benefit, but we’d be remiss not to point out it is controversial. Remember our local Google search example? If your VPN’s server is based in Boise, Idaho, when you search for stores, restaurants, or movie theaters, Google will pull up Boise-based businesses.

In the same respect, if you use a VPN while watching Netflix, you can view Netflix content in that region.

Confused?

Regional web content is a big deal. Think of NFL games. If you live in Kansas City, the Chiefs will most always be your prime NFL game no matter who else is playing in that time slot. If you are watching a network and that network believes you are in Kansas City, but really you are in Chicago, you’d probably see the Chiefs game, not the Bears game.

Companies such as Youtube TV make you declare your location, so you can’t use a VPN to trick them into showing you Patrick Mahomes and your beloved Chiefs. I just felt that example was the easiest to make.

The more extensive use relates more to companies like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. These companies have regional content deals worldwide. If you are in London, you likely see some differing content as options. For some people, they want that content. Maybe in the US, Netflix doesn’t have the rights to stream a specific show you want. But in Greece, you can view it. So you go into your trusty VPN and choose an Athens server.

To be clear, Netflix and the rest don’t permit this activity. Sometimes they can stop it. Sometimes, they can’t. This depends on how good your VPN is.

Free VPNs

No one likes to pay for anything. Getting something for nothing is an awesome feeling.

That said, let’s talk about free VPNs. 

Yes, free VPNs exist. And sometimes, they are a good thing. One of the most popular free VPNs is the Cloudflare VPN. The Cloudflare VPN uses 1.1.1.1. as your IP address. It’s a decent free VPN. You can download the Cloudflare VPN app if you want to use it. 

There are several other free VPNs. But what makes them free? We knew you’d ask.

To understand what makes a VPN free, you need to understand a few VPN quality factors.

VPN Speed. Speed is your main VPN concern. First, think about the basic VPN concepts we discussed throughout this article. In order to conceal your IP address and encrypt your Internet activity, your Internet connection must route through a remote server.

What if that remote server is sluggish? Then yeah, your Internet connection will suck. And no, if your current ISP plan is blazing fast, you won’t circumvent the frustration of the slow VPN server. 

So you guessed it, better quality VPN servers are found in paid VPN packages. 

Other VPN Considerations

Work VPNs (SSL)

These are VPNs that companies provide to employees who work remotely. The COVID-19 pandemic inflated the number of remote workers. In addition, many companies rely on internal Internet security systems to protect data and Internet behavior.

An SSL VPN allows a remote worker to login to the company’s central connection.

This can be quite valuable in cases where certain webpages are only accessible by company workers. The VPN will allow the remote worker to access these web pages because the connection derives from the workplace.

Browser VPNs

Browser VPNs are a popular way to conceal Internet activity. But these only work within the browser where the activity takes place. All other Internet activity remains exposed. In other words, browser VPNs don’t protect the entire device.

Do VPNs Work on Mobile Devices?

All of the top VPNs have a mobile app as well. They are simple and easy to use. You open up the VPN app, turn it on, decide whether to allow it to auto-connect to the best VPN server or choose a VPN server yourself.

What About Google, Apple VPNs?

Apple’s modern IOS versions have VPN services built-in, including the use of L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol) and PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol).

Major companies are becoming more supportive of VPN services. There is big incentive in showing VPN support if you are a Big Tech company, given that Big Tech remains under fire for privacy issues.

This leads us to the next portion – would you use a VPN created by a company that potentially misused data in the first place? Again, I’m not suggesting that a big tech VPN is inherently evil. I’m simply posing a question.

The fact is, any VPN service could defraud consumers by keeping your Internet activity logs even when they say they don’t. Nothing is perfect.

Conclusion

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. A VPN allows you to connect to a remote server. By doing this, your connection is encrypted and your IP address (location) is concealed.

There are many types of VPNs. Free VPNs can be sluggish, but some people use them to protect low-resource tasks such as email.

Author: Jim Satney

PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.

Please visit the CDC website for the most up-to-date COVID-19 information.

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