ExpressBasics: What is a VPN and why should I use it?

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VPN services are available for your desktop and phone, and they come in free and paid versions, but what exactly is a VPN and how does it work? Who should use it? These are some of the questions we will be answering today.

What is a VPN?

A VPN or Virtual Private Network is exactly what it sounds like: a private network that is created virtually when you browse the web. This private network promotes online security and improves your privacy in general.

Every time you turn on your VPN connection, a secure tunnel is created that acts as an intermediary between your device and the destination web page. Your data is then sent to an external VPN server, which will then connect you to your destination.

However, when the VPN server does this, your IP address (the online equivalent of a user-specific ZIP code) changes, and therefore websites cannot accurately track your location.

Understand how a VPN works

Imagine you are taking a direct drive to the mall in your car and your license plate number is your IP address. Everyone on that path can now see that you are on your way to the mall. They also see your car’s license plate number and can use it to trace it back to your identity. This is similar to browsing online without a VPN.

A VPN would be the equivalent of a second path leading to the same mall, except this time it’s through a hidden tunnel. The tunnel doesn’t let the outside world know of your movements, and it will also change your license plate on the way to the mall.

On the way back, the license plate will change again. Throughout your journey, you and your car will remain anonymous as the fake license plate cannot be traced back to you.

This is how a VPN acts as an intermediary to hide your IP address. (Image source: The Indian Express/Chetan Nayak)

Why would you use a VPN?

Security: The first obvious advantage of a VPN is the security it offers on the web. Without a VPN connection, websites can see your IP address and use it to pinpoint your identity and location. Many users might be upset about this. It would be like leaving a business card with your address in the hands of every person you have ever met.

A VPN would prevent everyone from the government to cyber criminals from easily tracking you. In simple words, by using a VPN you can monitor your online activity from your IP address. A VPN will not only take care of your IP address, but also protect your internet traffic, keeping it encrypted at all times.

Location spoofing: Another common reason people use VPNs is to get around geo-restrictions. The simplest example of this is certain movies or other content that is not available in your region. For example, Netflix knows every time you connect from your home region and which movie should not be on the menu.

However, if you were to use a VPN, it could allow Netflix to think that you are visiting the website from another region, one where said movie is not banned. But keep in mind that Netflix has been cracking down on users trying to bypass these geolocation blockers.

Bypass online censorship: Many countries have blocked access to various websites, where you simply will not be able to visit the site if you are from that particular region. A VPN allows you to bypass such restrictions.

Free web access is an important element of freedom of expression for citizens and journalists, who often use VPNs to access platforms that would otherwise be prohibited and where they can openly communicate with citizens without government restrictions.

Common VPN Disadvantages

Based on what you’ve read so far, VPNs should feel like they should be used at all times. Maybe they should for some, but maybe not for all. VPNs also have some downsides.

The first is the reduction of Internet speed. Since VPNs require your traffic to be routed through a VPN server, it could take longer to reach your destination website.

VPN users are also often actively denied access to certain websites and services, which you simply will not be able to visit or use if you are connected to a VPN.

It should also be remembered that VPNs are not the only way to stay safe online. They cannot help you if you download a malicious file, are tricked into entering your personal details on a fraudulent website, or are logged in with an account identifiable as a Google account that can be traced back to you regardless of your IP address. Also, remember, the VPN service knows which websites you are visiting, which adds another layer of complication.

Free vs Paid VPNs

So how do you decide which VPN service to choose when there are a number of free and paid services to choose from? Well here is the difference.

Paid VPN services will often require you to pay through a subscription model. These paid services like NordVPN or Surfshark VPN will offer perks like extra features, multi-device support, and better speeds.

Free VPN apps and services will often restrict you to lower speeds and ask you to pay for higher speeds. Beware of restrictions when opting for a free VPN service.

Another element is that your data is safe. Unlike the website you are visiting, the VPN still has your IP and the details of your internet traffic, so it is important that you trust a VPN service. Free VPN sources can misuse your data, record what you do online through their server, and sell this information to other parties, like advertisers.

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