A brief guide to VPNs and how they work

A brief guide to VPNs and how they work
Photo: Rawpixel, Bigstock

A virtual private network (VPN) is something you would have heard of in around IT and tech circles and is becoming more understood by the mainstream every day. The easiest way to understand virtual private networks is to simply take away the “virtual” part, so that you are left with “private networks”.

A private network is a simple concept to understand; it’s a closed network between computer systems that can’t be accessed by those without permission. An example of a private network would be the Wi-Fi used at your workplace or university.

When you add the “virtual” word back in, all it means is that you are accessing the network remotely or “virtually” as you are not really in a local area network (LAN) with the other computers you are connected with.

So, what really is a VPN all about?

Before you start searching for best VPN for Australia 2018 it is important to know what exactly it is. VPNs are simply a list of servers that you can connect to via your internet service provider (ISP). Once you have an established connection with your VPN of choice, via mechanism known as “tunnelling”, the server then acts as you virtual home while browsing the internet.

The VPN has functionally moved you into a secure, remote office space without you physically going anywhere.

When you start browsing the web from this secure space, all of the information you send and receive is safely encrypted so that it can’t be spied on by unscrupulous parties. Once you have successfully “tunnelled” through to the VPN, then it’s impossible for ISP’s and even some intelligence agencies to crack the code and see what you are doing.

Why would you use a VPN?

The most obvious reason to use a VPN is the privacy benefit of having all of your browsing data encrypted so that it can’t be traced. Because of the encryption you are protected from hackers who may attempt to intercept you while you were entering financial information to buy something online or at another vulnerable juncture.

For this reason it’s highly recommended to use VPN’s while connected to public Wi-Fi networks such as at cafes or in airports. This is because hackers are known to deliberately target people while they are connected to unencrypted public networks.

The other main benefit of a VPN is total privacy when looking up internet content that’s of private interest to you and others have no business knowing about. When you use a VPN to encrypt your browsing data it means that nobody will be able to spy on what you search for or what you say in online forums.

It’s a good thing to remember that while a VPN will protect all of the data you send to the hub, it won’t necessarily keep you safe from being traced through tracking cookies and other means of web tracking.

To avoid being tracked by cookies and other means, make sure that you conduct your searching with your browser configured to incognito or private browsing. There are also many software options that you can use to block tracking through your browser.

Another good reason to use a VPN is because it allows you to “drop out” in a virtual IP location. This means that you are given a virtual IP address from another geographic location, meaning that your physical location can’t be linked with the IP address used online.

A common use of this feature of VPNs is to get around governmental restrictions on what kind of content you can view or download. For example in Australia popular torrenting sites like thepiratebay are blocked by legislation designed to protect copyright holders.

This means that all Australian IP addresses are unable to connect to thepiratebay, meaning that the only way to access the site is to use a VPN to appear as an IP address from a country outside Australia’s jurisdiction.

This also works in reverse. For example, if you were on holiday but wanted to stream a show that was only available on your home countries’ version of Netflix, then you would be able to use a VPN to tunnel to your home address and watch the content.

While using a VPN to tunnel to other IP addresses can help you get around your local laws, you are still bound by them. A VPN does not make your browsing invisible, it only disguises it.

This means that while VPNs are powerful, they are not a foolproof way for criminals to avoid detection by government cyber agencies. With enough time and resources, a government agency can track and prosecute someone breaking the law via a VPN.