Almost everywhere you look you’ll see VPNs advertised: on TV, in magazines and, of course, all over the internet. Many bloggers, vloggers and plenty more besides have an opinion on what the best VPN is. But what is a VPN, and what can it do for you?
In short, a VPN is a tool that does two things: it helps secure your connection and can make it seem like you’re somewhere other than where you really are. The added security means that you’re harder to track by marketers and your internet service provider (ISP), while being able to fake (or “spoof”) your location means you can circumvent regional blocks like those put up by Netflix, to name just one example.
Below, we go over in more detail how a VPN works, the best times to use them and also some shortcomings that most advertising won’t tell you about.
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What are VPNs and what can they do?
VPN stands for “virtual private network”. The technology was first developed to let people working from home log into their employer’s intranet even if their IP address (the set of numbers that identifies you on a network) was different from their office’s. Their name is still a legacy of this: the “private network” refers to the employer’s systems, while “virtual” means that you are, for all intents and purposes, faking being part of it.
For a long time, until about the mid-noughties, that’s pretty much all VPNs were used for, to log into existing networks from outside. Students used VPNs to access university systems from home, traveling salesmen could use them to access a work database, that kind of thing.
Things didn’t stay that prosaic for long, though. As VPN protocols (the set of rules that govern how VPNs connect to the internet) evolved, they gained a lot more uses than just being a way to work from home. They first gained some popularity as ways to torrent files without being caught, while later they also became a tool to gain access to different countries’ Netflix libraries.
However, VPNs aren’t just handy doodads for software piracy and entertainment: they’re also solid security tools that can help you stay off the radar of marketers and help you avoid government surveillance and censorship. They can also help you stay secure while using public WiFi (though with the advent of HTTPS that’s becoming less of an issue than it was).
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How a VPN works
The way that a VPN does all this is actually pretty simple to explain, though the nitty-gritty of how it all works quickly gets complicated. It’s best to start at the beginning, namely how you connect to the internet.
When you access a webpage, you make a connection from your device to your ISP’s server (a computer that manages files for a network), which in turn has made a connection to the server of the site you want to visit. The site then displays the page you want.
However, the connection works both ways: the sites you access know your IP address and thus have a rough idea of your geographic location. This information, along with other data points gleaned from your browsing behavior, can be quite profitable for marketers. Your ISP also knows what you’re doing, though unless you’re in the United States that data is protected.
Rerouting your connection
Things change when you use a VPN, though: in this case, you connect to the ISP’s server as normal, but then reroute your connection to a server operated by the VPN. This gives you the IP address of that server, and only then sends you to the site you wanted. The result is that the site now thinks you have the new IP address.
This is great for a number of reasons: different sites display differently depending on the country you access them from. For example, if you’re in the UK, you get a specific library of films and TV shows on Netflix, but other countries have a different library. By using a VPN, you can connect to a server in the US and trick Netflix into showing you its US library.
This also works if you’re in a country with a restricted internet, like China or Russia. The People’s Republic blocks Facebook, for example. So, if you’re there on holiday, you can access the free internet in another country using a VPN and access Facebook that way.
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Securing your connection
VPNs aren’t the only tool that can reroute an address. Small apps called proxies do much the same. However, if you used a proxy to access Netflix you wouldn’t get through, and using one in China will only get you a cup of tea with the security services. What sets VPNs apart from proxies is what’s called the secure tunnel, also called a VPN tunnel.
A VPN tunnel is an encrypted connection that runs from the ISP’s server to the one operated by the VPN. This encryption does two things: it ensures the site you’re visiting can’t see beyond the new IP address, so to speak, making it much harder to see that it’s been spoofed. It also makes it so your ISP can’t see your activity or your spoofed IP address.
What a VPN can’t do
This increased security has led many VPN providers to claim that their products are a solution to all the ills of the internet. However, that’s not entirely true: as you may have figured out, a VPN is first and foremost a tool that changes your IP address.
So, if an attack or issue doesn’t involve knowing your physical location, a VPN is useless. For example, a VPN won’t protect you from hackers and scammers, no matter how much some services would like to claim otherwise.
Still, though, if you want to avoid censorship, visit streaming service’s other libraries, or cut down some of the spying done by marketers, VPNs are great tools. Check out some of our best VPNs to see what they can do for you.