What is a VPN & How Does it Work? | Avast Essential Guide
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What is a VPN and how does it work? Your Essential Guide.

Charlotte Empey, 15 February 2018

Everything you always wanted to know about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) but were afraid to ask.

What is a VPN connection and why are so many people talking about it? The term crops up in every conversation about the internet lately, and for good reason. While VPNs were once novel tech solutions, they are now necessary tools. At the basic level, VPNs protect your privacy online so you cannot be targeted, tracked, or discriminated against based on location.

This guide tells you everything you need to know about VPNs. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be a VPN master.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a secure, encrypted connection between two networks or between an individual user and a network. VPNs allow you to surf the web in privacy.  

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Another way to understand it is to imagine that the internet truly is a cyber highway, and we zip around it on stylish Tron light cycles. We visit our favorite websites, make purchases in shops, check our portfolio, get our news from preferred sources, play games, and more.

Anyone with a mind to do so can follow you along these digital highways and byways. To see your online activity, who you are, where you like to visit, all anyone has to do is look. Worse, they can follow you home. You’re traceable.

A VPN works like a shroud of disguise, masking you in anonymity. You are trading in your identifiable light cycle for a rented car with tinted windows. You are cloaked in data encryption and safely hidden behind a false IP address.

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The VPN encrypts everything you do online, everything you send and receive. By accessing the web only through a VPN gate, the source of your connection is shown as one of the many VPN routers, not your own.

A VPN is the closest you can get to true anonymity online without using the TOR network, which bounces your connection around a widely distributed network of volunteer relays, basically keeping your web activity in constant motion so nobody can focus on it. VPNs do not use this protocol, but they do offer sufficient — and essentialprotection as you cruise through today’s deregulated and hacker-lined cyber highways.

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Why do we need a VPN?

Now that you know the VPN definition, let’s talk about why you need one. Because you do now more than ever.

Net neutrality is the principle that all ISPs (internet service providers) should treat all internet data equally — no discrimination and no favoritism. In December 2017, the FCC repealed net neutrality, which means you may now find yourself up against any number of conditions or prejudices based on what you’re trying to do online.

Back in April 2017, the FCC took its first step in this direction by overturning a rule that required ISPs to obtain customer consent before sharing or selling their specific data. Now, ISPs are free to sell your social security number, your geolocation, your health info, your browsing history, and any details it collects on you to the highest bidder. Using a VPN keeps you private, even to your own ISP, so nobody can track your movements or see your data.

Another strong reason for VPNs is the rise of the modern coffee shop, where you see as many laptops as you do lattes. Any public Wi-Fi hotspot is a haven for hackers. If you like to browse while enjoying your brew, using a VPN will block any hacker perched on the same Wi-Fi hotspot, trying to spy on you.

With this recent deregulation of the rules and the increase in sophisticated cybercrime, the internet is a lot like the wild west. VPNs keep you protected through the madness.

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What are the pros and cons of a VPN?

VPNs offer several advantages. Because you’re anonymous in that tinted-window rental car, nobody can tell where you actually are. Before you set out on the cyber highway, you can choose from a selection of IP addresses. If the VPN provider is robust enough, it will offer a good selection of different geographically-located IP addresses.

For instance, if you are visiting Paris and you come up against region-restricted access to a site you typically visit in the US, you just need to choose a US-based IP address from the VPN service and, suddenly your virtual rental car has US plates and you’re granted access. Likewise, for access to a site that is only available in France: choose an IP based in that region and, voilà, you’re French. Here are some use cases where a VPN would come in very handy:

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  • Stream from anywhere - If you’re abroad and you try to access a streaming account you use in the US, you may find some shows are not available in that region. But if you choose a US-based IP address, all your favorites are at your fingertips, just as though you were home.
  • Access blocked websites - Certain institutions — schools, libraries, job sites — restrict access to specific web pages such as social media, but the encrypted connection provided by your VPN will tunnel right through.
  • Avoid censorship - Every government has an agenda, and some go to extremes to control information. While circumventing government restrictions could certainly be considered illegal in some of these countries, we’re of the mind that unadulterated free speech is a good thing.
  • Beat price discrimination - Price discrimination can hit you two ways. One is by your location — people in San Francisco or New York have a higher cost of living and therefore higher incomes. Clever businesses know this and program their sites to display a higher cost of goods to users based in those areas. (This is very common among the airlines.) The other way you can experience price discrimination results from your ISP tracking your purchases and preferences. As it learns you regularly buy a specific product, it can sell the product manufacturer your info, and you may see that product’s price go up for you, because they know you’re going to buy it. The privacy and anonymity of a VPN keeps you free of this kind of targeting.
  • Don’t be tracked - It bears repeating as its own section — don’t let yourself be tracked by hackers, cybercriminals, corporations, the government, or even your own ISP. Keep yourself free from repression, targeting, and discrimination.

Are there any downsides to VPNs? Comparatively speaking, the negatives are negligible, and the good outweighs the bad. Nevertheless, you should be in the know.

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  • Potentially slower speed - Your web traffic goes through more steps than usual when connected via VPN, so there could be a perceptible slowdown. Since this has always been the #1 complaint about VPNs, developers have taken notice. Many have had success optimizing speed and performance, so much so that their VPN users can stream and game fluidly without a hiccup.
  • QoS challenges - QoS stands for “quality of service” and describes the performance of a service or network. VPNs do not yet have a standard in place to gauge and report such measurements. With no metrics to analyze, you need to rely on professional reviews and word-of-mouth to learn what’s most reliable.
  • VPN blocks - Some businesses are getting wise to the fact that VPNs give their users carte blanche. To fight back, companies are beginning to block access from known VPN IP addresses. Not to be so easily defeated, VPNs simply turn on new IP addresses to use.  
  • Not TOTAL privacy - While the VPN does its job of keeping you private and encrypted, any cookies in your browser will still identify you. It’s up to you to turn those off.

Which devices can use a VPN?

Is a VPN iPhone compatible? Does a VPN allow Android devices  to hide from hackers’ spying eyes? The answer to both is yes. Anything connected to the internet will benefit from the privacy VPNs provide, and VPN services typically offer connection for multiple devices. Avast SecureLine VPN will cover up to five devices with one account.

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However, while computers, tablets, and phones can each be connected individually to a VPN, it’s not so easy with IoT devices. For those, the best option is to set up your router with VPN protection. Then, everything that passes in and out of that main hub is protected. Certain routers are sold with VPN software already built into them.  

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How do VPNs work?

So you want the rental car with the tinted windows? Then always connect to the web with your VPN service turned on. This immediately connects you to your VPN provider’s router, and it’s from there that you enter the information superhighway. Nobody can see your true IP address because you are now identified by your VPN’s address instead.

Additionally, your online connection itself is encrypted, so nobody can see the data you are uploading, downloading, or sending. What is encryption? It’s a method of changing readable text into an unreadable jumble of code. There are three main types of encryption: hashing, symmetric cryptography, and asymmetric cryptography. Each type has its own nuanced strengths and weaknesses, but they all succeed in scrambling your data so that it is useless in anyone else’s hands.

An extra layer of protection that most VPNs offer is their own DNS resolution system. The DNS (domain name system) is the internet’s phone book, equating text-based URLs with their appropriate IP addresses. The DNS allows you to type in a site name like “avast.com” rather than a long string of numbers. Cybercriminals can monitor DNS requests to track your movements online, but a VPN’s DNS resolution system is designed to thwart them with further encryption.

How did VPNs begin?

VPNs did not start out as the consumer product they are today. Microsoft developed the first one in 1996 to grant employees access to the company’s internal network from home. And the remote workstation was born.

This model redoubled company productivity, of course, (“You mean I can work on those spreadsheets in my pajamas?”) and more businesses began adopting it. This type of VPN use is in wide practice today — a standard feature of the modern business landscape globally.

Soon, the merits of having a VPN defender protecting one’s privacy caught on in the consumer sector. Developers saw that this secure “tunnel” in which one could commute to a network could be used to connect to the largest network on the planet, the world wide web. Almost everyone wants to stay private and anonymous online, and VPNs became the turnkey solution.

Different types of VPNs

There are two basic types of VPNs. A remote access VPN allows users to connect to another network, be it the internet or their company’s internal system, through a private, encrypted tunnel.

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The other type, a site-to-site VPN, is also called router-to-router VPN. This VPN is mostly used within corporate environments, specifically when an enterprise has headquarters in several different locations. The site-to-site VPN is used to create a closed, internal network where the various locations can all connect with each other. This is known as an intranet.

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There are several VPN protocols, or methods of security. The oldest is PPTP, point-to-point tunneling protocol, which is still in use today, but widely considered one of the weaker protocols. Others are IPSec, L2TP, SSL, TLS, SSH, and OpenVPN. Many favor OpenVPN because it’s an open source software, meaning if a vulnerability in the programming is discovered, someone will say something before long and it will get patched quickly.

How to choose a VPN

When choosing a VPN, you have options. Some would prefer to try a VPN free of charge. Free VPNs are great if you want to trial and see how it works. We recommend taking a trial for 7 days of SecureLine VPN Free. Once you try it, you’ll want the full version (yes, it does cost a little, but you get all the bandwidth and servers you need to access the content you want from wherever you are, plus all the protection when on free Wi-Fi).

Things to be aware of when trying a free version are:

1)They sometimes employ weaker protocols like PPTP.

2) they have fewer servers, so you are sharing bandwidth with others, which results in slower speeds.

3) they sometimes contain ads.

4) they usually have download limits. Just know this going in so that once you are convinced you need a VPN, you know these things will have higher performance in a paid VPN service.

What to look for in a VPN

Paid VPN services are superior, but each one is different. Here’s what to keep in mind as you search for your perfect VPN app:

  • Reputation - To get a good sense of how the VPN performs, read both consumer and professional reviews. Also, since ISP privacy rules were killed, many fake VPNs have popped up, so make sure you’re looking at a real one.
  • Shared IP addresses - Choose a VPN that offers shared IPs. Being among multiple anonymous users adds another layer of privacy to your anonymity.
  • Servers - For performance, the more servers, the better the browsing, because everyone is not crowded on the same one. Also, the closer you are to a server, the faster and more reliable your connection will be.
  • Encryption - AES-256 (advanced encryption standard) holds the highest encryption standard to date. It’s virtually impossible to crack, as it has more combinations than there are stars in the universe.
  • Protocol - Try to avoid the weaker protocols like PPTP, and go for the more reliable OpenVPN.
  • Data logs - You want your VPN service to state it does NOT keep data logs (basically, its own account of your internet movements). Read the VPN policy to see if it collects your info.
  • Customer support - The best VPNs have customer support standing by in case anything goes wrong.
  • Features - Keep in mind what’s uniquely important to you, and be sure the VPN you choose is compatible with what you need. For instance, some VPNs don’t allow you to use BitTorrent, while others do. Some VPN download allowances are limited to a certain number, while others are not. Some offer ad-blocking, firewalls, kill switches, simultaneous connections, etc. Find what works best with your online lifestyle.
  • Free trial - Many VPNs offer free trials, and you should always take those for a spin first. Experience the ease of use and the performance of the VPN before you decide whether you want to purchase it.

There you go. You now understand the origin, evolution, and critical need for VPNs in this day and age. Make the smart choice and enjoy online freedom. Install Avast SecureLine VPN (you can try it for free!) to keep your internet connection secure. Remember...privacy is a right, not a privilege.

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