While the technology behind virtual private networks is not new, the ability to connect anonymously is becoming more important as the world becomes more digital. A VPN allows users to connect to a server located anywhere in the world, and since they are on the internet, the ability to connect anonymously is part of the service.
How exactly does a VPN work? Let’s take a look.
What Is A VPN?
A VPN is a type of network connection that allows you to access private networks, such as businesses, and public networks, like the internet, through a single connection. With a VPN, your computer or mobile device works like a remote control for your home network, allowing you to access your computers, mobile devices, and other networking resources from anywhere in the world. In a sense, VPN gives you temporary “privacy” on the internet.
Your internet service provider (ISP) generally provides your internet connection to the public, so they can offer services to other users. Most ISPs have terms of service that prohibit users from running a VPN or connecting to private networks through the internet (typically because they don’t want users to avoid paying fees). However, since these restrictions are laid down by your ISP, you can technically get around them by installing a VPN app or using a built-in VPN feature on your mobile device. The benefit of this is that you can use a VPN to access private networks even if you are signed up with an ISP that doesn’t allow VPN connections.
While the ability to connect anonymously is appealing, it is a double-edged sword. Essentially, since your computer or mobile device is acting as a remote control for your home network, anyone near your computer or mobile device could potentially access your data—even if it is encrypted. For this reason, it is best to use a VPN on a need-to-use basis only (e.g., when you aren’t sure whether or not you are being tracked online).
Why Should You Use A VPN?
Whether you are a professional or a casual user, there are many reasons why you should use a VPN, especially if you live in a country like the United States, where internet privacy is already a prominent issue.
Internet connections in the U.S. and other parts of the world are increasingly under attack from cybercriminals, hackers, advertisers, and even the government. One of the ways that internet providers like Comcast and Verizon spy on their subscribers is by recording their internet activities and using this information to craft marketing profiles. For example, if you visit a site like Twitter, your internet provider will know that you visited that site because it will log your IP address. From there, it’s a simple matter for them to connect the dots and figure out that you visited a certain website, liked a certain tweet, etc.
In addition to being a potential source of personal data leakage, your internet connection can also be a source of performance degradation. Since your computer or mobile device is processing all of the information as it comes in, whether it is encrypted or not, the more connected you are, the more sluggish everything else on your device will become. For this reason, it is best to use a VPN on a need-to-use basis only (e.g., when you aren’t sure whether or not you are being tracked online).
What Is The Difference Between A VPN And An Anonymizing Proxy?
There are two main types of VPNs:
A VPN built on strong encryption protocols like the military-grade AES 256-bit encryption or the stronger ciphers offered by more recently developed protocols like the IP-sec or L2TP/IPSec protocols. The stronger the encryption, the more difficult it will be for hackers or cybercriminals to access your data. However, this comes at a cost of increased complexity; most VPNs that use strong encryption protocols are also quite a bit more complicated to set up and use.
Anonymizing proxies, such as the popular Free VPN Proxy by Private Internet Access or Proxomitron by Private Internet Ltd., are designed to imitate a VPN in order to trick your brain into thinking you are connecting to a trusted entity. While this may be effective for casual use or when connecting to non-private networks, it is not advised that you use a proxy as your only line of defense against cyberattacks or data leakage. If you are really keen on protecting your personal data, there are safer, more robust options out there.
Since we already established that VPNs can be a double-edged sword when it comes to privacy, it is important to keep in mind that not all VPNs are created equal when it comes to security. Some VPNs might be safer and more private than others, but you should always do your own research before using a VPN. Also, make sure that the company you choose is reputable and was established for the sole purpose of providing a secure service.
Types Of VPNs
There are basically two main types of VPNs:
A server-based VPN is where your device connects to a server (computer or mobile device) in order to gain access to the internet. Once connected, your device will act as a passive relay for all of the data passing between the server and the internet. Essentially, you are trusting the server with all of your personal information and data, as it is the server that will be analyzing and acting on all incoming traffic. While this is secure and efficient, it can also be a bit more difficult to use for those who aren’t familiar with setting up a VPN on a server.
A client-based VPN is where your device (computer or mobile device) connects directly to the internet without the need for a server. Your device will then act as a passive relay for all of the data passing between the server and the internet, which in this case is usually a web browser. The main advantage of a client-based VPN is that it is much easier to use and setup compared to a server-based approach. It also offers a more streamlined experience since all of the traffic will be handled directly by your device. There are also some security advantages to using a client-based VPN, such as limiting the potential for man-in-the-middle attacks. In other words, since your device is connecting directly to the internet, it is safer to assume that no one is intercepting or acting on your behalf without your knowledge.
While they have their differences, both types of VPNs are generally safe and efficient options for those seeking privacy on the internet.
Are There Any Free VPNs?
If you are searching for a free VPN, your best bet is to check out our top picks listed below.
Not all free VPNs are created equal, so make sure that you read reviews and know exactly what you are signing up for. Some free VPNs are very easy to use and almost invisible in your device’s menu, which is probably why they are free. However, you should be aware that some free VPNs are owned by large corporations who will eventually sell your data to the highest bidder. For this reason, it is always best to find a free VPN that is not owned by a big company.
Most providers will retain your personal data for only as long as you are a registered user, so make sure that you check with our editorial team before submitting your information. In the meantime, here are our top picks for free VPNs:
- Private Internet Access
How Do I Set Up My VPN?
If you haven’t set up a VPN on your computer or mobile device yet, the first thing you need to do is download and install the VPN app of your choice. Most desktop and mobile apps are designed to be user-friendly and allow for simple setup. Once you have installed the app, it will present you with a login screen where you can create a username and password. For security reasons, it is recommended that you create a unique password for every login. In most cases, your internet service provider’s login page (e.g., Comcast, Verizon, etc.) will also be visible, so you can use that as a secondary form of authentication. When you are ready to connect, open the VPN app and select the “Connect” button to begin the configuration process. Depending on your device, the VPN app may automatically log you in, or you may need to enter your login credentials.