Unless your head has been firmly in the sand of late, you will have come across the term ‘VPN’. These services are employed by people who want to keep their card details secret, who want to avoid government snooping, and who want to access geo-restricted content such as films and news articles.
VPN – standing for Virtual Private Network – services are touted as great ways to ensure safety and privacy online, but how do they actually work?
Your IP Address
One of the primary goals of a VPN is to hide or obscure your IP address. An IP address is a unique string of characters that allows your computer, phone, or external hardware to be identified by hardware and software. This allows them to communicate accurately with each other.
Hardware and software ‘recognize’ other hardware and software using IP addresses so that they can communicate. So far, so good. Unfortunately, your IP address gives away a great deal of information that you might not want to set loose. Your location, browsing history, and hardware type are all revealed by your IP address. This can be used by criminals, governments, and media companies to harvest or restrict information.
Virtual Private Networks allow internet users to obscure their IP address by rerouting their online activities through a remote server. Every server has a unique IP address, and by routing traffic through a remote server, a VPN allows a user to take on the IP address of the remote server of their choice.
Many VPN service providers allow users to pick from servers scattered throughout the world. This allows them to get around geoblocking efforts by media companies and news websites and prevents any malicious actors from using the location of user hardware to steal information. Learn more about how remote servers can make the internet more accessible here.
Remote servers are an essential part of any Virtual Private Network. They make the tracking of activity via IP address very hard indeed. Although sophisticated hackers and government organizations can sometimes trace information back to user IP addresses this process is extremely difficult and generally speaking not deemed worthwhile.
If a government organization wants to track your activity while you are using a VPN, they will need to either approach your Internet Service Provider or seek a court order that permits surveillance.
The use of remote servers means that data is constantly being routed from your hardware to the server of your choice operated as part of a VPN network. Data in transit is extremely vulnerable.
So-called ‘man in the middle’ hackers intercepts data while it is being sent or received and can exploit it in numerous ways. In order to get around this, all good Virtual Private Networks make use of encryption for the protection of data on the move.
Encryption entails the scrambling of data before it is transmitted. Data can only be unscrambled by hardware or software that has been provided with the correct decryption key.