ExpressBasics: What is a VPN and why you should use it – The Indian Express

ExpressBasics: What is a VPN and why you should use it – The Indian Express

VPN services are available for your desktop and your phone, and they come in both free and paid versions, but what exactly is a VPN and how does it work? Who should be using it? These are some of the questions we will be answering today.

What is a VPN?

A VPN or Virtual Private Network is exactly what it sounds like – a private network that is virtually created when you surf the web. This private network promotes online safety and enhances your overall privacy.

Every time you switch on your VPN connection, it creates a secure tunnel that acts as a middle man between your device and the destination webpage. Your data is then sent to an external VPN server, which will then connect you to your destination.

However, when the VPN server does this, your IP address (the online equivalent of a user-specific postal code) is changed and thus websites are unable to accurately track your location.

Understanding how a VPN works

Imagine you are taking a straight road to the mall in your car and your number plate is your IP address. Everyone on that road can now see that you are on your way to the mall. They also see your car’s number plate and can use it to track it back to your identity. This is similar to browsing online without a VPN.

A VPN would be the equivalent of a second road that leads to the same mall, except this time, it is via a hidden tunnel. The tunnel doesn’t let the outside world know of your movements, and it will also change your number plate on the way to the mall.

On your way back, it will change the number plate again. Through your trip, you and your car both remain anonymous as the fake number plate cannot be traced back to you.

Here’s how a VPN acts as the middleman to hides your IP Address. (Image Source: The Indian Express/ Chetan Nayak)

Why would you use a VPN?

Safety: The obvious first advantage of a VPN is the safety it offers on the web. Without a VPN connection, websites can see your IP address, and use it to accurately identify your identity and your location. Many users could be bothered by this. It would be like leaving a business card with your address on it in the hands of every person you ever met.

A VPN would prevent everyone from the government to cybercriminals to track you back easily. In simple words, using a VPN you can your online activity from your IP address. A VPN won’t just take care of your IP Address, but also protect your internet traffic, keeping it encrypted the whole time.

Location spoofing: Another common reason why people use VPNs is to get around geo-restrictions. The simplest example for this is certain movies or other content not being available in your region. For example, Netflix knows every time you connect from your home region, and which movie should not be on the menu.

If you were to use a VPN, however, you could allow Netflix to think you’re visiting the website from another region, one where the said movie is not banned. But keep in mind that Netflix has been cracking down on users who try to circumvent these geolocation blockers.

Getting through online censorship: Many countries have blocked access to various websites, where you simply will not be able to visit the site if you’re from that particular region. A VPN allows you to bypass such restrictions.

Free access to the web is an important element to the freedom of speech of citizens and journalists, who often use VPNs to get to otherwise banned platforms where they can openly communicate with citizens without government restrictions.

Common VPN disadvantages

Based on what you have read so far, VPNs must sound like they must be used at all time. Perhaps they should for some, but maybe not everyone. VPNs also come with some disadvantages.

The first one is reduced internet speeds. Since VPNs require your traffic to be routed via a VPN server, it could take longer to reach your destination website.

VPN users are also often actively denied access to certain websites and services, which you simply won’t be able to visit or use if you’re connected to a VPN.

One must also remember that VPNs are not the only way to keep safe online. They cannot help if you download a malicious file, are tricked into entering your personal details on a scam website or if you’re logged in with an identifiable account like a Google account that can be traced back to you irrespective of your IP address. Further, remember, the VPN service knows which websites you are visiting, which adds another layer of complication.

Free vs Paid VPNs

So how do you decide what VPN service to go for when there are a number of free and paid services to choose from? Well, here’s the difference.

Paid VPN services will often require you to pay via a subscription model. These paid services like NordVPN or Surfshark VPN will offer perks like extra features, support for multiple devices and better speeds.

Free VPN apps and services will often either restrict you to lower speeds, asking you to pay up for more speeds. Watch out for restrictions when opting for a Free VPN service.

Another element is your data being safe. Unlike the website you’re visiting, the VPN still has both your IP and your internet traffic details, so it is important you trust a VPN service. Free VPN sources may misuse your data, log what you do online via their server and sell this information to other parties like advertisers.