What is a VPN and Do I Need One?

Internet Big Picture

By Jayne MillerMay 11, 2017


VPN is a virtual private network that shares data through a public network like the internet.

There's no shortage of pieces floating around the internet imploring readers to get on the VPN train. (Some more aggressively than others.) And there are concrete benefits to such a setup, few greater than security.

Here’s How a VPN Works

A VPN is a group of computers connected via a public network. That public network is almost always the internet. Accessing this special network normally requires logging into a VPN client on your device.

In logging in, your computer will exchange information with a VPN server that verifies your credentials, establishing an encrypted connection. Moving forward, all of the data you send and receive via your VPN-connected device will be encrypted—only you and your VPN server will be able to view your internet traffic.

Without a VPN, all of your internet activity passes through your internet service provider’s servers.

In contrast, without a VPN, all of your internet activity passes through your internet service provider’s servers. In a VPN scenario, your ISP can only see that you’re connected to another server.

Why is Everyone Telling Me I Need a VPN?

Earlier this year Congress voted to let internet providers sell user’s browsing history, igniting fresh discussion about internet privacy.

But beyond these headlines, corporate environments have been all over VPNs long before 2017. With the rise of telework, virtual private networks have been a logical way to protect information and provide employees access to servers that aren’t on the internet.

While paying for a VPN service isn’t the only option for users who wish to up their privacy settings, going with a VPN is a reasonable suggestion—and one that comes with a few added benefits. (If you really don’t care about security, VPNs also evade regional restrictions for video and music-streaming sites, so there’s that.)

The praise you’ve heard for the virtual private network has likely been in response to the encryption features central to the VPN setup. Further, most VPN services are run from other countries, meaning your IP address will change. The websites you visit will only be able to track your site behavior back to your VPN provider—another layer of anonymity.

Switching to a VPN is only pivoting your trust from an ISP to a VPN provider.

But not everyone is on board. VPN users might find that their internet will get slower due to the encryption process. And switching to a VPN is only pivoting your trust from an ISP to a VPN provider, as that provider can indeed see your internet history. It's not quite the invisbility cloak it's made out to be.



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