What is a VPN?


Between government surveillance initiatives, online hackers and the numerous companies looking to harvest and sell your personal data, maintaining your online privacy and security is becoming an increasingly difficult task. If you're concerned about ensuring that your internet browsing remains safe and anonymous, a VPN service might be the answer.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In short, a VPN uses the internet to connect to a remote network. Some VPNs are used by businesses to allow off-site employees to connect to their corporate networks as if they were in the office, often for the purposes of file-sharing.

A far more common use of VPNs, however, is to securely access the internet. These VPN services route all your web traffic through a dedicated server before feeding it through to the wider internet. This has benefits for security and privacy, as your web connection and traffic can be encrypted and anonymised by the VPN, preventing covert snoopers or hackers from intercepting your data.

How do VPNs work?

Commercial VPNs protect your data by forming secure connections between your machine and the VPN server. This is known as VPN tunneling', and uses a variety of security and encryption protocols to ensure that your internet packet data is visible only to you and your VPN provider.

Examples of common VPN protocols include Internet Protocol Security (IPsec), Socket Security Layer and Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS), Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) and Secure Shell (SSH). VPN providers may use one or more of these protocols.

Before you can establish a VPN tunnel, the endpoint i.e. the machine you're using to connect to the VPN must be authenticated. This is typically done via a traditional username and password combo, but other methods such as two-factor authentication or digital certificates can also be used.

Are VPNs illegal?

The simple act of using a VPN is legal in most countries, as it simply involves routing your traffic through another server before it reaches the wider internet. However, the use of VPNs is often associated with legally questionable activity.

For example, using VPN services to access geographically restricted content (such as US Netflix) is prohibited by most companies' terms of service. Netflix has outright banned the use of VPNs when accessing its services in order to prevent this use-case, although some providers manage to get round this.

How do I use a VPN?

VPNs may sound like baffling network wizardry to the uninitiated, but thankfully companies like Buffered and NordVPN have made the process as simple and user-friendly as possible. The first step is picking the right VPN provider for you. Some VPNs are built with an emphasis on privacy and security, while some are more focused on circumventing blocks on services like Netflix.

Once you've signed up for your chosen VPN service, connect to the internet as normal. Next, download and fire up your VPN client software. You'll be asked to log in, and once your connection has been authenticated, you can choose a server to route your internet traffic through. Once that's done and the connection has been established, you can surf the web in safety.

You may also have other options such as specifying encryption types, depending on the features offered by your VPN provider. For our rundown of the best VPNs around, check out our VPN roundup.

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.