VPN stands for ‘Virtual Private Network’, whereby the facility offers a secure, encrypted ‘middleman’ connection between the VPN user and the wider internet.
If an internet visitor does not have a VPN, their office or domestic router connects to the web via their internet service provider (ISP). The ISP’s server contacts the desired destination website, then the user’s browser displays the site on the user’s device. As part of the ISP’s connection procedure, it usually keeps a log of every website the end user visited, for how long, and identifies the user’s location.
ISPs make money by selling anonymized logs of their customers’ internet activity to advertisers, for example, by providing data outlining how many households in a given area searched for certain products or services.
However, the intermediary server provided by the VPN encrypts the user’s connection and also anonymizes it, so even though the ISP still makes the connection, it can’t identify who the website visitor is or where they are in the world. This ensures that the ISP can’t sell the VPN user’s data, nor can it keep usage logs.
How is a VPN server different from a proxy server?
The term ‘proxy server’ is often used interchangeably with ‘VPN server’ but this is not strictly accurate. The crucial difference between a VPN and a proxy is that a proxy server is ‘fixed’ – so that when a small-business user purchases a proxy, it might well be a ‘residential’ proxy, making the enterprise appear to be a domestic residential internet user, but it will be the same server that is used permanently. A VPN allows the user to freely switch between a variety of servers in a multitude of locations – so the VPN user could live in the US but appear to be connecting to their destination website from, say, the United Kingdom, if the UK based server suited that VPN user’s purposes.
What are the advantages of using a VPN?
There are many reasons to take advantage of the security and anonymity of a VPN to connect to the internet. The main benefits are:
- No data throttling – sometimes if a household or particular geographic area is using very large amounts of data, residential ISPs slow down or ‘throttle’ connections to particular connections to reduce the amount of data being consumed. A VPN prevents this because the ISP doesn’t know who or where the VPN user is.
- Dynamic pricing avoidance – some websites such as hotel room vendors or flight booking portals can offer prices based on the users ‘affordability status’. So if your ISP shows a flight website that you live in Beverly Hills rather than Birmingham Alabama, you may be offered a higher price for your ticket. A VPN can allow you to choose your location.
- No logs – if you are a political activist or maybe involved in the dark web, you’d probably not wish the government or authorities to be able to track your internet activity. A VPN server prevents this.
- Geo-restricted content accessibility – certain streaming providers and websites restrict content accessibility to a certain country or even state. If you want to view content on the BBC’s iPlayer you can only do so from the UK – a VPN will allow you to access the internet from its UK server even if you are elsewhere ibn the world, this circumventing this restriction.
- Malware and ransomware security – a VPN server automatically scans connections for potential malicious activity, and the VPN software will instantly disconnect the user from the malicious server if it detects any virus or hacking attempts.
There are many reasons to use a VPN, with no significant disadvantages when doing so. The increased security, anonymity and peace of mind speak for themselves. In short, using the internet without a VPN in the modern age is only asking for trouble.