Data Privacy Day was Jan. 28. We’ve already taken a look at what private browsing is, and explained that it’s not really all that private. At the end of that article, I mentioned two tools that offer much more robust protection. One was the TOR browser, the other was a VPN, but what is a VPN and how does it enhance privacy and security? Let’s dive in.
VPN stands for virtual private network. The network part, well, that’s easy. It’s basically a bunch of computers that share various resources. Private? That one’s pretty self-explanatory. The “virtual” bit is where things get a little more complicated.
When you connect to a VPN, all the data that gets sent from your device to the private network at the other end (and back) is “encapsulated.” Each packet of data gets put inside another packet – think putting a letter into an envelope to keep its contents from being read during transport. The envelope could still be opened, though. That’s why organizations like the CIA put tamper-proof tape over the flap. With a VPN connection, encryption is the tamper-proof tape. Some VPNs use SSL for encryption (just like secure websites do). Others might use IPSec or PPTP.
The end result is a sort of network-within-a-network, but because of encapsulation and encryption, your connection to a VPN remains private even though the data you’re transmitting is moving over the very public Internet.
Here’s a simple take on what a VPN connection looks like, courtesy of the folks at Microsoft:
Why Use A VPN?
Remember how your browser’s private browsing mode only kept traces of your activity off your computer? A VPN can actually keep your ISP (and cybercriminals and would-be eavesdroppers) in the dark about what you’re doing. Take a look back at Microsoft’s diagram: the ISP can see the tunnel but they can’t see what’s going on inside the tunnel.
This also comes in handy at places like a hotel, airport, or coffee shop. You’re putting yourself at risk any time you use their unencrypted public Wi-Fi connections. If you connect to a VPN immediately after, however, you can surf safely.
Some VPN providers also allow their users to spoof their physical location. They might do that in order to access geo-restricted content on video streaming sites. A VPN connection can also help you get around ISP throttling and protect you from invasive tracking while you surf.
There are other benefits to using a VPN, too, but anonymity is not one of them. Using a VPN enhances your privacy and security, but you should never assume that your activity couldn’t be traced back to you if someone really, really wanted to do it.
This article was written by Lee Mathews from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.