What is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)
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These days VPNs, also known as Virtual Private Networks, are all the rage, but not for the reasons they were initially created. They were conceived as a way to connect business networks together securely over the internet or allow users to access a business network from home, a very straightforward use really.
The point of a VPN is to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. Accessing region-restricted websites, masking your browsing activity even while using public Wi-Fi — all of this and more can be done through a VPN.
A vast majority of people nowadays are using VPNs for torrenting or bypassing geographic restrictions — to watch content restricted to a different country, for instance. Security or privacy might not seem the primary use for VPNs now, but in the wake of everpresent tracking and aggressive marketing strategies the need for additional protection grows — which is where AdGuard comes into the picture.
How Does a VPN Work?
When you connect your computer (or another device: smartphone or tablet) to a VPN, the computer acts like it’s on the same local network as the VPN. All your network traffic is sent through a secure encrypted connection to the VPN. Because your computer behaves as if it’s on the network, this allows you to access local network data even when you yourself are on the other side of the world. You’ll also be able to use the Internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using public Wi-Fi, need to gain access to geographically blocked websites or simply maintain your privacy and anonymity.
When you surf the Internet while connected to a VPN, your computer contacts the website through an encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website back through this secure connection. For example, if you’re using a US-based VPN to access Hulu or any other streaming service, Hulu will see your connection as coming from within the US.
VPNs essentially forward all your network traffic to the network, which allows for all the benefits – like accessing local network resources remotely and bypassing Internet censorship. Most operating systems have integrated VPN support. Once again, in very basic terms, a VPN connects your desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet to another computer (oftentimes called a server) somewhere on the internet, and allows you to browse the Web using that computer’s secure internet connection. If that server is in a different country, it will appear as if you are actually located there (and not in your bedroom in pajamas sipping coffee), which will allow you to access things on the Web that you normally couldn’t. VPNs essentially act as interlays between your computer and the content you wish to reach.
If you want to dive into details, learn more here on how does a VPN work.
Why use a VPN
Don’t let anyone determine your location and get information about your computer, forget about scammers and geo-targeted ads.
Shield your data from being siphoned through shady Wi-Fi hotspots thanks to data encryption and a masked IP.
Beat the algorithm and watch your favorite series on Hulu or Netflix while in another country while being abroad.
Download (legal) files and avoid being logged while at it. Even when your ISP heavily dislikes BitTorrent.
Stay under the radar
Lessen the onslaught of ads, at least geographically-targeted ones (an ad blocker helps too).
Bypass geographic restrictions to watch/listen to restricted content.
Change your IP address
Using VPN, you’ll hide your real IP and bypass restrictions, get access to websites, encrypt traffic, and protect data.
Can VPN be tracked?
Basically a VPN is a shield for everything you do online as it encrypts all your incoming and outgoing traffic. It also keeps up your online privacy and prevents others from trying to pry on your traffic and basically on you yourself. This is one of the biggest pro points of a virtual private network, and the primary reason why it is a sought-after privacy tool in these trying times. So what it does protect you from is someone trying to look at your network traffic if they are positioned between you and your VPN provider (for example a correctly set-up VPN should prevent someone on the same wireless network as you from getting their hands on and reading your traffic).
The downside, however, is that the interceptor can easily detect that you are using a VPN. But, since the IP address will be that of the VPN server, they cannot track your real address or location. Unless they use other means such as installing malware on your system or getting to you through other information that you may have shared on Facebook or any other social network for that matter.
The sheer fact of using a VPN isn't going to stop people who want to trace specific activities on-line. A VPN isn't therefore likely to protect you from, say, a group like Anonymous — unless they happen to be on the same LAN as you. But it will keep you safe from the more trivial online perpetrators like cookie stuffers, data collectors or anyone using phishing techniques.
Can VPN be hacked?
If, perchance, you somehow present interest to very skilled hackers or very determined authorities (do you?), then yes, hacking a VPN can be possible. In 99% other cases — stay cool, there’s nothing to worry about. However, this is what can be attempted towards your VPN:
you can be de-anonymized and exposed by doxing;
your IP isn't the only thing that identifies you on the internet — info can be found in other sources like social accounts;
your VPN service sees your actual IP and traffic, therefore if someone hacks the VPN provider itself, they would find you;
it is possible to install malware that is hard to detect on your device without you knowing, and the malware will be leaking your info to the attacker.
Hacking a VPN requires only the best skills and hackers who can break the encryption by using its vulnerabilities, or by stealing the encryption key — which in itself isn’t a walk in the park. Other than that, you will need lots of money and resources. Breaking a strong encryption is hard and time-consuming and may take many months to complete. Stealing the key is also not an easy task. Just make sure to choose a secure and trustworthy provider, and you are good to go. You are exposed to much more online dangers without one, so owning a VPN really can’t do any harm except much good.
Can VPN traffic be monitored?
Theoretically, traffic that is going through a VPN could be monitored on the VPN server exit point (which may or many not coincide with the server), or on its way from exit point to the final destination. Normally the use of end-to-end encryption like HTTPS takes care of this problem.
Your Internet service provider and all parties on the way from you to your VPN server can only show that there is some traffic exchange going on between you and the VPN server, but they cannot peek at what that traffic contains. The traffic patterns themselves still may be used to associate you with your activity, if someone records it. But realistically, the traffic itself wouldn’t be deciphered anything close to what it actually was. You can launch some downloads or start up an online radio to add some noise to your traffic patterns if you are feeling especially distrustful of what’s out there.
Can VPN be blocked?
In fact, yes. There are some countries where the use of VPNs is banned, and global streaming services like Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and BBC tend to blacklist VPN services (cause they have some territory-licensed content with they don’t wish to be fined for if users bypass the restriction).
Technically VPNs can be blocked in several ways:
By blocking DNS resolution;
Blocking connections to the specific VPN endpoints by IP and/or port address (but they have to know specifically whom to block and see how their client works);
A VPN service owns a limited number of IP addresses. And since most VPN servers use IPv4 protocol, it’s difficult to generate unique IP addresses, which leads to a number of subscribers using the same IP addresses for months (and more). Websites that blacklist VPNs use special online services to block IP addresses that have been used by multiple different users;
By forcing all traffic via a password protected http proxy (which blocks lots of other things along the way like Windows updates — annoying);
And as a last resort it is possible to just block all other traffic including DNS (as it is possible to encapsulate vpn traffic inside DNS packets) — at this point the Internet performance would become frustrating to an average business user and unacceptable to a home user (no streaming services, voip etc).
But once again let us postulate that only a serious corporation (various governments included) will have the need, time and means to do that to the average Internet user. In other cases you’re safe.