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What is a VPN? A closer look at virtual private networks and what they do

Originally posted on techradar.

We walk you through the basics of what a VPN actually is

VPN is one of those tech terms and has gained a lot of traction in recent years as the internet has diversified and grown to even bigger levels. But what is a VPN and why are they worth downloading?

The premise is actually quite simple, and there are some great use cases. An abbreviation of Virtual Private Network, VPNs are a fantastic first line of defence for your PC, Mac, laptop or mobile device. That’s because their encrypted tunnels keep the data and information you exchange over the internet private to prying eyes and your identity anonymous.

They’re also commonly used by torrenters (for similar reasons), people working from home and keen TV streamers – the latter largely because VPNs also allow you to change your IP address to pretty much anywhere in the world, including regions that might be showing the sports you’re interested in and more extensive Netflix catalogues.

Other uses include unblocking websites that are banned by your school or office, unblocking WhatsApp in China and other countries where it’s banned and even getting cheaper flights and holidays.

So that’s what a VPN can do, but what actually is a VPN?

What is a VPN?

In brief, VPNs or virtual private networks are secure “tunnels” that cannot be intercepted by anyone, making the software the safest mainstream way to browse the web privately. VPN providers use their own servers based in various countries, meaning you can also access region-restricted content and websites, while also staying anonymous online – even on public Wi-Fi.

VPNs offer optimal privacy

All the traffic that passes through your VPN connection is secure and cannot, in theory, be intercepted by anyone else, making it the safest mainstream way to browse the web privately (but not always anonymously).

Just bear in mind though that VPN setups are only as secure as the weakest link in the entire chain. So if your device has already been compromised with malware already, using a VPN won’t save you from being spied upon, although a good antivirus could.

If there’s one worry when it comes to using technology and the internet, it’s privacy. By using a VPN, you can, in theory, prevent your internet service provider (ISP) and government from seeing your internet history. Even a free VPN can offer you this layer of protection – just expect ads, speed throttling and data restrictions.

VPNs have also emerged as a popular tool in the freedom of speech movement. You’re able to avoid censorship within organisations and from third-parties. For example, if you have a view that goes against the priorities of your employer, you don’t have to worry about them finding out.

People also use technology from the likes of ExpressVPN to “geo-spoof” and change location. This results in users customising their location settings to be able to use overseas services. A great example of this is using a VPN for streaming TV programmes or finding online products that are only available in a specific country, perhaps due to legal or licensing issues.

Privacy, streaming and more

You can resort to a VPN to protect yourself from hackers too. If you’re outside and sign up to use a public internet hotspot – perhaps in a cafe or library – there is the chance someone could try to break into your device. This can lead to you losing valuable data, such as passwords.

This technology is also emerging as a popular force in the world of business. When you’re traveling  around for meetings all the time, it’s normal to connect to third-party networks. With a VPN, you can access your firm’s intranet without the worry of being targeted by cyber criminals.

Many VPN services offer different pros and cons, so if you’re looking to access Hulu via a VPN when away from the US or need a BBC iPlayer VPN to watch from outside the UK, dial into your office network or simply stay safe and secure online, you’ll find a service tailored precisely to your needs.

Furthermore, a VPN can be used to avoid having your internet connection throttled. One provider, NordVPN, reckons that some users have seen their Netflix streaming speeds triple by employing a VPN to bypass their ISP’s throttling. That’s certainly food for thought.

It’s also interesting to note that while phishing remains a major danger online, a VPN can help protect you against malware or con tricks when web browsing.

And it’s no great surprise that our page on the best VPNs for China is so popular. Like several other countries around the world, the state government in China has full control about what sites its populace can and can’t visit. Using a VPN to divert your IP address to somewhere else in the world entirely means that you won’t suffer such restrictions if you go to those countries on business or holiday.

Proxy vs VPN

Proxies are also popular, and there’s always the question about how they differ from VPNs. The aim of both methods is to protect users’ identities or to spoof a location. While they are different technologies, many VPN providers also offer proxies.

A proxy is type of computing system that functions as a go-between for your connected device and your web connection. These servers also have their own IP addresses, so transfers can’t be traced directly to your computer.

They may share common aims with VPNs, but typically, they only secure a torrent client or browser. Using a VPN, you can encrypt 100% of your internet connection, so there’s more protection.

Source: techradar

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