What is a VPN? | Everything You Need to Know
1. What is a VPN, and how does it work?
2. Features to look for in a VPN.
3. Uses of a VPN.
4. Our top VPN recommendations.
Are you being spied upon? Do you think the government keeps track of your daily online activities? Do you believe the car behind you that made the same three turns is trying to murder you? Well, you're not paranoid... except for the car part. It is no secret that every country monitors online activity in an attempt to provide internal stabilization. Typically this is done by your internet service provider logging the incoming data to their servers. But is data logging always for the greater good, or can it be abused? What can you do about it? What is a VPN? And what is a VPN good for?
All these questions and more are to be answered in this article.
A virtual private network (VPN) basically is a service that redirects your traffic through their servers and sends out the data as if it's their own, which changes your IP address to the IP address of the VPN company's server, the masked IP address can play so many roles and make your life much easier by unlocking geo-restricted content that is only available to certain locations.
But wait, that's not all. In addition to the IP masking provided, a VPN company provides users with data encryption by creating a tunnel or a pathway between you and the recipient of data by encrypting the data. This means all activities become anonymous, as your internet service provider (ISP) would be handed encrypted data, that makes no sense without a decryption key.
Another feature you might benefit from is getting rid of trackers, which can view your online activities and either send you targeted ads, change prices according to viewed content, or view private information you don't want to share, such as your medical history, for example.
What is a VPN's encryption, and why is it important?
To start with, encryption is defined as the process of converting information into a code in order to prevent unauthorized access. Encryption is not a new concept, but rather it has been implemented in letters since ancient times.
An easy-to-understand example of the most simple forms of encryption is the Caesar cipher implemented in ancient Rome. The Caesar cipher works by shifting the alphabet by a certain number; for example, if the shift number is +1, then the word "hello" becomes "ifmmp" by shifting every letter with the next letter in the alphabet. In a long letter, this would provide incomprehensible gibberish, unless you know the decryption key to decode it, in this case, that would be the shift number.
In modern-day times, encryption has gone leaps and bounds beyond the simple and easy-to-break non-key-based encryption such as the Caesar cipher, more advanced forms including key-based symmetric and unsymmetric types, with AES-256 bit encryption being the VPN gold standard nowadays.
To put into the picture the complexity of the AES-256 bit encryption mathematically, 256-bit encryption would mean that there are over 2256 possible variations that a hacker must go through in order to crack the code, which changes every time. It is secure to the point that militaries, banks, and governments use it to ensure their data stays safe. Even the fastest supercomputer would take over 40 years to crack the code successfully.
What is a VPN protocol?
A VPN protocol is a set of code lines and instructions on dealing with information regarding encryption, sending, receiving, and other various activities a VPN program/application follows.
Using different protocols can provide different tools and utilities for users. Certain protocols can do certain jobs faster and more smoothly than others. Protocols aren't always available on all platforms, and even when available, some have better compatibility with certain operating systems than others.
In terms of security, protocols can differ in the type and strength of encryption. A protocol such as the point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP) is considered insecure. It uses Microsoft point-to-point encryption, as it has many vulnerabilities and can be easily exploited. Others like the OpenVPN can provide high security (OpenVPN AES 256-bit encryption), but it can be relatively slow due to the large code (approximately 400,000 lines of code).
A list of the protocols that are commonly available include:
|Main for Windows, BSD, Linux
|All platforms (typically preferable for iOS and macOS)
|All platforms (typically preferable for iOS and macOS)
|Basic encryption (weakest) supports encryption keys up to 128-bits, and it uses MPPE (Microsoft Point-to-Point Encryption)
|Uses SSL 3.0 (vulnerable to the "POODLE attack", not recommended)
|OpenVPN AES 256-bit encryption
|ChaCha20 for symmetric encryption with poly1305 for message authentication
|TCP port 1723 and IP port 47 (easiest to block/ least reliable)
|Uses 443 port (hard to block)
|UDP port 500 (easy to block)
|UDP ports 500 and 4500, and ESP IP Protocol 50
|Uses 443 port (hard to block)
can be freely selected
high ports range. If no port is
|Fastest but least secure
|Relatively slow due to the double encryption
|Generally fast (faster than OpenVPN)
|Top competitor. Very fast with decent protection
In addition, many VPNs have their own patented protocols developed to boost functionalities of existing protocols further or created from scratch. A few examples include Lightway protocol by ExpressVPN, NordLynx protocol by NordVPN, Chameleon™ protocol by VyprVPN, and the Hydra Catapult protocol by HotSpot Shield. All of which add extra value.
1. Split tunneling
2. Kill switch
3. Based country location
4. Logs policy
5. RAM-based servers
What is a VPN feature you shouldn't overlook? There are more than a few features that are relatively essential for a good experience when considering a VPN to use. Here we listed the most important and useful of which including:
The split tunneling feature means you can selectively use your VPN on a certain type/source of data outgoing from your device.
Split tunneling in certain situations is favorable.
For example, when you're torrenting while playing a video game or watching a YouTube video. In such a scenario, you would want only the torrenting to be encrypted. VPN encryption will slow down the connection speed relative to not using a VPN since the encrypted data is larger than non-encrypted.
You might be wondering, what is a VPN kill switch? A kill switch refers to a mechanism to drop your connection in the event your VPN connection drops. This matters because if your connection to a VPN drops while your connection to the internet is still connected, the encryption and IP masking will be removed, exposing your data.
The VPN leak is a serious issue. The two types of leak possible include an IP leak and a DNS leak, the IP leak when your IP is exposed to other parties, while a DNS leak is when your DNS queries (requests to enter a website) are exposed to other parties, including your ISP, both can be prevented by a kill switch.
The location in which country a VPN is based matters when considering a VPN. In the event a VPN country is inside the 5/9/14 Eyes Alliance, users should proceed with caution.
Countries in the 5/9/14 Eyes Alliance spy on their citizens and share info. There have been instances where VPN companies based in the 5/9/14 Eyes Alliance countries kept activity logs despite claiming not to do so. (Read more on the 5/9/14 Eyes Alliance).
What is a VPN company log policy? It's what a VPN company does with your data online and offline. The whole idea behind a VPN is to mask your data and IP address, which would be redundant if the company you use logs your data and sends it to its local government, or sells it to consumers, such as what most free VPN companies do. A no-log policy means that a VPN company won't register your data.
There are two types of no-log policies: the true no-log policy and the no-activity logs policy. The difference is that while the true no-log policy gathers zero information, the no activity logs policy gathers a small amount of information, including your billing information, email address, but not what you do online.
What is a VPN RAM-based server? A RAM-based server is a server that automatically deletes all content with every reboot on its own, which is superior to the old SSD-based servers, which require the manual deletion of content every once in a while. In addition, RAM-based servers are thought to have a speed advantage over their predecessors using SSD storage. However, the number of services providing RAM-based servers is very small, reducing the number of choices.
So going back to the main issue at hand, what is a VPN used for?
A VPN has so many uses that can make your life much better and easier. The IP masking allows you to jump from one place to another without physically doing so. VPNs benefits can be seen in:
Did you know that many websites change the price based on the viewing country's economic status?
That's right, for example, when buying games online, it was found that buying the same game from India is always cheaper than buying it from the US, that's because these companies often take into consideration the per capita income.
In addition, many websites track your data when you search online, so if they know from your search query that you've been searching sightseeing locations to certain areas, the ticket prices to that rea might increase.
Did you know that streaming websites have different content in different areas of the world?
That's right when viewing Netflix in the US, the content will be much richer and diverse than when viewing Netflix in areas like the Middle East or Eastern Europe, for example. The reason for that would be that the streaming companies must buy area-specific licenses to stream different shows, as the license to stream a show like Parks and Recreation in the US doesn't cover other areas globally, as they must be purchased separately.
And that's where the IP masking kicks in; masking your IP to different parts of the world can provide you access to the locally licensed shows on different platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, or Crunchyroll.
What is a VPN's role in torrenting?
The use of torrent and VPN go hand in hand, mainly because many torrent users reside in countries with laws against digital piracy. Although not all content inside a torrent website is illegal to download, however, many governments block access to them nonetheless.
What is a VPN's role in high censorship countries?
Certain areas of the world prevent its users from accessing certain websites. Take, for example, the situation in China, where websites such as Google, Youtube, Facebook, and many more are blocked nationwide. A few examples of countries that have web censorship include China, Turkey, UAE, and Iran.
A few countries such as China started fighting VPNs by implementing rules against them and a nationwide firewall to block all VPN-based traffic. Nevertheless, many companies were able to bypass this censorship and provide users with the means to break through the restrictions.
Based on all we've said about what is a VPN and all its specifications, we decided to make you a list of the best VPN providers that have the features mentioned above, so you can have a comprehensive list of which VPN companies to go for. Additionally, we included promo code links so you can get the best prices possible!
Our top VPN recommendations include:
NordVPN is a favorite for so many people. It is based in Panama (Not a 5/9/14-Eyes Alliance) with a strict no-log policy. It has over 5400 servers spread over 59 countries worldwide. It provides dedicated P2P servers to better facilitate torrenting download safely with high speed, making it very usable for torrenting. NordVPN has RAM-based servers.
NordVPN provides a high-end encryption level (AES 256-bit military-grade encryption) and has “obfuscated” servers for geo-censorship countries like China to bypass The Great Firewall of China. Pricewise NordVPN is relatively lower than ExpressVPN, giving it an edge in this section.
ExpressVPN provides it all. It is based in the British Virgin Islands (not a 5/9/14-Eyes Alliance member) with a strict no-log policy. It has over 3000 servers spread over 160 locations in 94 countries. ExpressVPN has RAM-based servers.
ExpressVPN has a high encryption level (AES 256-bit military-grade encryption) and has a kill switch. Furthermore, some countries like China use a firewall (The Great Firewall of China) to prevent locals from using a VPN. ExpressVPN is one of the few that can bypass this geo-censorship.
ExpressVPN is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, VPN out there. This makes it very suitable for torrenting and even streaming. Its price is on the higher end of the VPN price spectrum.
CyberGhost is based in Romania (not a 5/9/14-Eyes Alliance member), provides a no-log policy, has over 6000 servers spread over 90 countries, and provides 256-bit encryption. However, In the speed department, it falls short in comparison to the top two. CyberGhost has RAM-based servers.
In terms of obfuscation, CyberGhost doesn’t work as well, rendering it less useful in high geo-censorship regions. Pricewise CyberGhost is more cost-efficient.
Surfshark is based in the British Virgin Islands (not a 5/9/14-Eyes Alliance member) with a no-logs policy. Has over 3200 servers spread over 65+ countries. It provides 256-bit encryption. A kill switch and many of its servers are optimized for fast torrenting. Relative to the two above, though, it is slower. Price-wise it is cost-efficient. Surfshark provides RAM-based servers.
It’s compatible with P2P clients like BitTorrent and uTorrent as well as streaming players.
Private Internet Access is based in the USA (a member of the 5-Eye alliance). It has over 35,000 servers in 77 countries which is one of the widest varieties. It provides 256-bit encryption and has a kill switch. PIA has RAM-based servers.
All Private Internet Access servers allow for high-speed P2P sharing. And price-wise, it is rather good. Its only downfall is the 5/9/14 Eyes alliance localization. Nevertheless, they claim a no activity-log policy.