Privacy, speed, consistency, and easy access. People expect more out of their internet these days, even if their internet companies can’t deliver what they need. As cybersecurity and bigger online activities become bigger parts of everyone’s lives, it’s time to think about how to take your internet security into your own hands.
Virtual Private Networks or VPNs are a powerful set of tools that can help stay private online, bring consistency to a stable connection, and gain access to parts of the world that can be hard to reach because of local restrictions. From watching UK Netflix in the US or accessing Japanese and Korean-only games from across the world, a VPN can do it all.
Here are some details about how a VPN works, along with some in-depth benefits from making VPNs part of your everyday internet access.
What Is A VPN?
For a textbook VPN definition, a virtual private network–as the name suggests–is an entirely digital, private network that is limited to a private group. Instead of being a new set of hardware like a modem and a few computers with new cables, it all happens in virtual space.
A network is a group of connected devices, and for most people, that means a few computers, a modem and/or a router, a few cables, and maybe a server. A network can be any devices–such as mobile devices, virtual computers, or gaming consoles–and wireless internet such as Wi-Fi, 3G/4G/5G, radio, or even Bluetooth can take the place of cables.
Inside a VPN, a clean network is available for you to browse the web. Normally when you use the internet, your network traffic leaves your home, goes through your Internet Service Provider (ISP, the company you buy internet from), and out to the open web. Although some internet is encrypted or jumbled in a way that is hard to casually read if someone intercepts your data, in theory, anyone could sniff the traffic that leaves your home.
In fact, the term for that is packet sniffing. Programs such as Wireshark exist specifically to inspect traffic, and can be used for legitimate reasons to fix networks or to steal information. It’s not just common or popular; this is the stuff that people learn in school these days if they’re going for an Information Technology or Computer Science degree.
A VPN hides that information. When your traffic enters a VPN, it stops looking like your traffic and instead looks like yet another random stream of information in the vast sea of data. It still means something if you look closely, but there’s nothing to identify your information. Details that could be used to identify you are stripped, meaning that even if legitimate sellers or illegal scammers see data going through or trends making sense, it doesn’t link specifically to you.
How Does A VPN Work?
1) First, the VPN has to be built. A VPN service provider such as Surfshark has enough network resources, connections, and partners to create a robust, wide system for your security.
At its core, a VPN company is a server company. Just like a private server, a mail server, or a file storage locker, this means having a lot of storage space and strong control over their network resources.
You need to be an expert at server technology and then branch out into everything that makes VPNs special. You need to know how to run or “spin up” a virtual machine, know how to identify intruders, and know how to connect with other networks.
2) Second, you need to enhance security. Security it proprietary, since if the public–including your customers–knows how your security works, it’s much easier for attackers to research ways to break in and wreak havoc.
There are a few standard security practices. Using HTTPS and other security protocols is necessary to make sure that the basics of not just encrypting or scrambling, or hiding information is being done. It’s also important to make sure that as little information is being logged as possible.
Logging is a big topic in VPNs, because some people use VPNs to become totally invisible to the internet. Netflix users and people trying to dodge internet viruses may not care, but if you don’t want to be tracked by corporate enemies, law enforcement, or governments, you don’t want a VPN service to record everything you do.
Why? Because if someone hacks the VPN or if law enforcement raids the VPN, they could have a paper trail of everything you do. While avoiding VPNs that specifically log your traffic is a good idea, keep in mind that there may never be a 100% logging-proof way to use the internet. There’s always a trail somewhere, so do your homework and use multiple services.
That said, unless you’re a hacker, avoiding a stalker, or need to hide from corporations or governments, you don’t need to be strict about logging. It’ll cost a lot of money to keep up that act, and you’ll see no benefit as an average user.
3) Users need an easy way to connect. While the technology used to make VPNs work can be complex, using a VPN must be simple. You need a simple login and password, and a few basic options to get connected right away.
For most people, getting connected is the most important part. There are a few standard ways to get connected and let the system do it’s magic, but many users may need more complex options. Connecting to specific servers, connecting to specific countries in order to make your connection look like it’s coming from another nation, blocking or only accepting specific traffic, and many other options are available.
4) Once connected, knowing that the VPN works must be simple. How can you tell if the VPN is working? For the most part, using the VPN should feel like using the internet as normal.
At most, you may notice a slight delay if there are a lot of users connecting, or because any additional destination will take extra time–even if it’s just a few milliseconds. A good VPN will have a meter or a set of labels showing whether the VPN is on or not, and whether you’re actively using it or not.
When you connect to a VPN, you’re no longer going from your modem to the world. A VPN is like sticking a filter to the inside of your computer; your internet goes through the VPN’s filter first, and your internet traffic is transformed.
From that point on, the internet no longer sees John or Jane Doe’s connection. They see something coming from some random address with no easy identifiers. A skilled networker may be able to tell that it’s VPN traffic just because of the pattern, but there’s a lot of VPN traffic out there these days.
For people who need privacy, a VPN that switches off without telling you is a nightmare. Privacy-focused VPNs have kill switches that can shut off the internet connection so that you don’t accidentally start using your secret internet techniques without protection. If the VPN isn’t working for some reason, you’ll need to manually switch over to normal internet.
That extra work is important and helpful for security-minded people. For people who just want to get to foreign Netflix or Hulu, you’ll just see an error message about not being able to access the site outside of your country.
Using VPNs for Streaming
As mentioned, there are a lot of reasons to use a VPN. The most popular reason these days is for streaming, since many major streaming platforms will block their movies and TV shows.
Why do companies block their content in the first place? The reason is usually licensing.
For most movies and TV shows, a license is needed for a specific country. The licensing company gets the money from you or your streaming service, and the licensing company pays the studio or rights owner.
Why would a creator deal with a licensing company and not handle their own licensing? Most countries–especially the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, the European Union, and most Far East Asian countries have laws governing who can distribute content.
The means specific companies have a right to show the shows you want, and that usually means paying that government a license. Your favorite show’s creator probably doesn’t have the money to buy licenses in every country. Instead, they sell to existing license-holders.
In some countries, there may be morality laws or religious laws blocking certain content. Your government may consider your shows or movies to be illegal, immortal, or not yet reviewed and not yet legal for your country. While you could find a copy on the internet, big companies like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are big enough to get the government’s attention.
These big companies get in trouble when they knowingly make it easier for people to view illegal material, so there are specific Netflix offices and staff for each country. They handle specific country or regional laws so that the major company doesn’t have to memorize every country’s specific laws. In some cases, those same local licensers help with legal coverage.
VPNs can help you get around a lot of those restrictions. The easiest way is to tell your VPN to make your internet connection look like it’s coming from another country. You can make your Internet Protocol (IP) address look like it’s from the USA, UK, or Canada to gain access to Netflix in those countries.
If your country is specifically being blocked, you can make your connection look like it’s from anywhere but your country. Just pick another country and see if it works. If you’re blocked, you can try again. It won’t look like the same person trying with different addresses unless you’re constantly using your username and password. Thankfully, you can access the sites for testing without logging in.
Using VPNs for Gaming
For gaming, the reasons to use a VPN are similar. All of the blocking issues happen for largely the same money; local companies handle local customers.
Gaming companies gain even more from local licensing because it’s hard to support lots of customers in multiple countries. Why hire new staff that speaks a different language or lives in a completely different time zone when you could sell a version of your game for locals to manage?
There is also a technical reason to block foreign internet access. As anyone who plays foreign online games will know, you have to deal with lag or delays when playing internationally. Internet access is fast, but it’s still a physical thing, and traveling from Europe to Asia adds a lot of travel time.
More travel time means a longer trip for your data, which adds milliseconds or entire seconds. Pressing the shoot button from the UK to a Japan server will take longer to arrive than a Japanese player pressing the same button in japan.
It doesn’t just create unfair gaming situations, it’s just downright frustrating. Companies already know that many frustrated users don’t understand networking and will block access so that young or inexperienced players won’t hate the game before it comes to their country with a more polished experience.
Unfortunately, foreign players who don’t mind lag will be blocked from the experience. Many foreign game experts and companies such as Steparu cover games that never reach the countries of their fans, and even if people are willing to pay, foreign internet blocking gets in the way. VPNs can get around those blocks.
A VPN can change what your connection looks like while gaming, so if you need a Japan or Korea-only address, it’s as simple as clicking the right option. You may even experience lower lag or disconnects, since the VPN may bypass a lot of bad hiccups along your internet’s path.
For more information about how VPNs work, the services offered by the best VPNs on the internet, and other ways to take control of your internet situation, contact Surfshark and ask away