All the tech community and YouTubers seem to talk about only Virtual Private Networks lately. Companies like NordVPN and ExpressVPN seem to be everywhere, from top-ranked articles to tech events. What’s all the fuss about? This article is a definitive guide to all your questions and more.
In the past few years, I have used, tested, and reviewed a lot of free and paid VPN services. Today, we are going to take a deeper dive and understand what a VPN actually is.
In this VPN Explained article, we are going to discuss everything about VPNs. If you are an absolute beginner with no knowledge of VPNs, I’m sure you will leave with a substantial amount of understanding about the basics from this article.
We will start by understanding what a VPN is and how it functions. Then we will discover its major uses and disadvantages, along with the different types of VPNs.
Finally, we will address some important security questions around VPNs and also check out a few alternatives to them. So are you ready to get enlightened on this topic?
Is VPN ban in India? Is it legal to use VPN in india?
Let’s find out.
- What is VPN?
- What is Encryption?
- Why do you need a VPN?
- History of VPN
- SSL VPN vs IPsec VPN
- What should a good VPN do?
- What things should I consider while buying a personal or business VPN?
- Disadvantages of a VPN
- Are VPNs as important as the media is portraying?
- How to configure my VPN?
- The curious case of free VPN service apps
- VPN and the government: Is VPN legal?
- India’s New Laws
- What does this change for Indian VPN users?
- Alternatives of a VPN
- Frequently Asked Questions
What is VPN?
VPN stands for a Virtual Private Network. A VPN provides the priceless service of internet privacy and anonymity. Using a VPN encrypts all of your online activity. Only a key can thaw this VPN encryption.
However, this key is only known to your device and the VPN provider. So even your internet service provider cannot discover you. In many ways, opting for a VPN service is a shift of trust from your Internet Service Provider to your VPN provider. But since over the years, the internet service-providing companies like Verizon and at&t have proved themselves to be so untrustworthy that opting for a VPN service sounds like a better option even when it comes to trust.
What is Encryption?
It is a way of hiding your data that makes it almost undiscoverable to the people who are not meant to see it. Imagine if you want to send a super-secret message to friend A. But you have to send it via another friend B who isn’t supposed to read the message.
An excellent solution would be to write the message in a language that you and A speak, but B doesn’t.
Encryption of data takes this a step further. So, how is an encrypted message different from a normal one? Most of the time, it could just be a random sequence of letters and numbers that hold no meaning. The receiver has to decrypt a message to read the contents. Today, if you use the HTTPS protocol, it means all data between you and the web is encrypted. Thus, encryption is useful in the wake of increased cyber-attacks.
Why do you need a VPN?
Booking hotels and flights
I have noticed that hotel and flight prices differ based on the location you’re booking them from. Using a VPN, you can save a few bucks while booking your hotels and flights.
Escape Internet censorship
There’s no doubt that the content on the internet is censored. However, Internet censorship varies depending on the region. Some countries have heavier censorship laws, and thus internet users in that region are tied to the law, causing them to miss out on a lot of content. The websites and web pages can locate the server’s geographical location and decide if they can access the content. Here’s where VPN can be your friend helping you access geo-blocked websites. VPNs can spoof your location, i.e. can hide your real physical location, which makes it possible for you to remote access any location regional content.
To escape government mass surveillance:
Mass surveillance has continued to thrive despite strong criticism from the public. Government implements mass surveillance by buying data from internet service-providing companies. All major companies like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have been caught selling their user’s data. In countries like the USA, doing this is legal. Thus, masking your data from your internet service provider is also very important.
Safe browsing and advertisements
Sick of advertising companies following you around on the internet?. Using a VPN will make it impossible for advertisers to track important metrics like location and email. So you can say goodbye to targeted ads.
Using public Wi-Fi safely
If your job requires you to travel a lot, then VPN is a blessing. Even private hotel Wi-Fi is as insecure as public networks from restaurants and cafes. Any malicious hacker can easily do a man-in-the-middle attack and get access to a lot of your private data. In my opinion, this is the most useful property of a VPN. As a traveller using public Wi-Fi, buying a VPN service could be one of your biggest investments.
How does a VPN work?
Imagine travelling through a highway to the famous wikiperdia.org. However, the highway is known to be a dangerous one. Infested with problems like road thieves, unruly drivers and bad roads. Now, what if a highway fairy comes up to you and shows you a magical tunnel? With the magical tunnel, you don’t have to encounter any bad roads or thieves. That’s a VPN. A VPN uses its tunneling protocol to secure remote access and thus avoids the usual internet traffic.
History of VPN
The history of VPNs is pretty new. VPN started in 1996 when Microsoft employees wanted to create a secure network from their computers and the internet and thus developed PPTN (peer-to-peer tunnelling protocol). So companies who wanted to protect their information against data breaches mostly used earlier VPNs.
Thanks to the high-profile cyber-attacks in the early 2000s, VPN technology and VPN software advanced swiftly, prompting VPN use. Fast forward to today, we consider VPNs an essential commodity for internet hygiene.
SSL VPN vs IPsec VPN
What is an SSL VPN?
A virtual private network that uses secure sockets layer protocol is called an SSL VPN. It may also use the Transport layer security. For this method, there isn’t any VPN client involvement since it’s implemented by the user’s web browser.
What is an IPsec VPN?
Internet Protocol Security is the only VPN implementation method that was used before SSL for introduced. IPsec VPN needs a VPN client software on the user’s device instead of using the web browser like SSL VPN. Thus, IPsec is more complicated than SSL since it involves purchasing, installing and updating the VPN client software.
What should a good VPN do?
Here is a list of the features that are offered by the best VPN services.
Hide IP address
IP address spoofing refers to the practice of hiding your actual IP address, giving out your real geo-location and using the VPN to take on a fake geo-location
No DNS leaks
If you are using a VPN, your IP address should not be visible to your ISP. But sometimes, the IP address may become visible to your ISP’s DNS servers. So a DNS leak is a security glitch that can be pretty antithetical.
A no-logging policy implies that the VPN service does not keep a log of your data. The company won’t be able to do anything with your data, even if they want to. However, let me tell you, privacy is a fickle business. If the VPN company kept logs, we would never know.
It is common for a connection to a remote VPN server to drop while using a VPN. This is not necessarily caused by the VPN service or VPN traffic itself. Your VPN connection can drop due to a plethora of reasons, including unstable internet or device software. If you are in a situation where using the internet without a VPN connection can be harmful, the kill switch is your best friend. Kill switch automatically blocks your internet connection when your VPN connection drops, thus stopping your online presence from becoming visible. Unfortunately, not all VPN companies offer this service, so always look out for this feature when you’re buying a VPN.
Two-factor authentication might seem a little irritating, but it’s the best tool to protect yourself against malicious hackers. This feature will protect you against malicious hackers even if they have your username and password.
A VPN creates a VPN tunnel between you and the internet. But the strength of the tunnel is not uniform across all VPN networks. It depends on your VPN provider and what kind of protocol is being used? People throw around the term end-to-end encryption and it has been successfully marketed as shatter-proof armour. Whereas end-to-end encryption only limits the transmissibility and can be easily broken by hacking the devices.
These are certain commonly used VPN protocols:
- L2TP(Layer 2 tunneling protocol)/IPSec
Since VPN does slow down internet speed, sometimes you might want to run a few apps without a VPN. Split VPN tunneling allows you to do that. Using split VPN tunneling, you can carefully curate which apps need to go through the encrypted tunnel and otherwise.
What things should I consider while buying a personal or business VPN?
A fool-proof way of ensuring product quality on the internet is by reading the reviews. Make sure you get reviews from legitimate accounts.
Servers in your country
Your location is an important metric for VPN speed. Thus, it’s important to check how many servers the VPN company has around your geographical location. If you are closer to your server, it makes the encryption process & speed faster.
Does it have a grim history? Some VPN companies have been caught involved in shady things like collecting and selling the data of their users. It’s better to not be involved with such companies.
The cost of the VPN should justify the service. If VPN is a necessity for you, then investing in a pricy service makes sense. But if you are buying the VPN just for everyday activities, then I would suggest you choose a more decently priced service.
5 Eyes Alliance
During the cold war, an alliance of five countries, the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia was formed. These countries agreed to share their mass surveillance data in an attempt to control terrorism and other threats to national security. Eventually, the five countries became 9 and then fourteen.
The fourteen countries involved are the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, and Spain.
If a VPN company is based out of these countries, they will be most like bound by law to surrender their data. So, as a general rule of thumb, avoid buying internet security software from companies based in these countries.
Disadvantages of a VPN
We know VPN connections slow down up to 10-20 per cent. This is because VPN adds a few more steps to your usual internet browsing procedure while adding encryption and tunnelling your data. However, the extent of the decrease in speed depends on factors like location, VPN protocol and your provider.
A VPN connection also uses more data and battery for the same reasons as it compromises the speed. Encryption takes up the extra data and so your data usage might increase by 5-15 per cent. Again, this also depends on factors like location, VPN protocol, and your provider. The most easily adjustable factor is the protocol. If you want to use less data, you can switch to a protocol that uses fewer data.
Here are some protocols that use the lowest data, among others:
128-bit PPTP < 128-bit L2TP/IPSec < 128-bit OpenVPN
However, the catch is that these protocols aren’t very secure. So only use them when you are sure of the network you’re using.
Here are some other protocols that use a moderate amount of data but are secure.
128-bit Stealth OpenVPN < 256-bit L2TP/IPSec < 256-bit OpenVPN
Are VPNs as important as the media is portraying?
VPN companies seem to be on a marketing rampage. They are sponsoring YouTubers, using targeted ads and also almost all articles about VPNs are written by VPN companies. This begs the question: is VPN that important?
The internet is a lot safer than it was 10 years ago. Due to the efforts of non-profit organizations like let’s encrypt, almost all sites have got a free SSL certificate that is necessary for HTTPS connections. Using HTTPS encrypts your data. Even google pushes sites with SSL certificates that prompt more sites to get one. So all surfing on the internet is encrypted already. So unless you use a lot of public Wi-Fi or you do not want someone to track you, VPN is not as important as they have marketed it.
How to configure my VPN?
On Mobile (VPN app):
1.Download the ExpressVPN
2. Select location
3. Tap to connect
4. Your VPN is connected
- Click on the Windows button, then head into Settings > Network & Internet > VPN.
- You will find an option to add a new VPN.
- In the fields on the page, select Windows (built-in) for your VPN provider.
- Choose a name for your VPN and add the server’s name and server address.
- For added safety, you can add a user name and password.
- After this, you can go to your internet settings and choose your VPN.
The curious case of free VPN service apps
Disadvantages of a free vpn
‘Five-star ratings, excellent reviews AND free’
A little too good to be true?
A lot of VPN companies bubbled up in the post-Snowden era. This new market, based on the principles of safety and privacy, also promised to be affordable. But isn’t free the ultimate affordability in the internet’s world.
Apps like secure VPN and protonVPN are popular in the play store. But a security research company found vulnerabilities in all the top 10 VPN apps in the play store.
The best way to spread malware is to disguise it as security software. Repeatedly, free VPN service apps are caught having malware. And then what happens? the app gets banned- that’s it. The loss of your data will never be reimbursed. These app developers aren’t held accountable for their actions. They might get their account banned, but do you think a developer can’t find their way around an account ban?
Running a VPN service is not a zero-cost business. Running servers, paying the employees and marketing costs need to be covered. So, if they don’t get paid for the service, they have to have a product that keeps the money coming. Data is the new oil, so what better product to sell than the data of thousands of unsuspecting users?
A common line of thought could be that companies like Google and Facebook also sell your data. Why is this any different? Major multinational companies like Google and Facebook have a lot of restrictions based on how they can collect and sell your data. The government is pretty strict with them, which is great since these companies are always on their toes about privacy restrictions. However, these small VPN companies don’t have many rules to follow. If any problems occur, they can also dissolve the company, leaving no room for trust-based business. Therefore, almost all the free VPNs sell our data to maintain cash flow. So my advice would be to stay away from free VPN tools.
VPN and the government: Is VPN legal?
Except for a handful of countries like Belarus, Iraq, North Korea, Oman and Russia, VPNs are legal in all countries.
However, this doesn’t mean that it’s all roses. A lot of countries are strict with cyber laws. The government can ask the companies to hand over their data. They can go a step further and force them to collect data even if they have a no-logging policy. For example, VPNs are not completely banned in China. However, people can only use government-approved VPN servers. To make things worse, the government demands backdoor access whenever required.
These rules make the use of VPNs in China redundant.
India’s New Laws
On 28th April, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) dropped a bombshell by announcing new rules for VPN services in the country. The new rules violate the very nucleus of of why a VPN service exists.
An excerpt from the official notice:
Data Centres, Virtual Private Server (VPS) providers, Cloud Service providers and Virtual Private Network Service (VPN Service) providers, shall be required to register the following accurate information which must be maintained by them for 5 years or longer duration as mandated by the law after any cancellation or withdrawal of the registration as the case may be:
a. Validated names of subscribers/customers hiring the services
b. Period of hire, including dates
c. IPs allotted to / being used by the members
d. Email address and IP address and time stamp used at the time of registration / on-boarding
e. The purpose of hiring services
f. Validated address and contact numbers
g. Ownership pattern of the subscribers/customers hiring services
To summarise, the government of India wants VPN companies to collect user data(mentioned in points) for 5 years. This essentially violates the no-logging policy. No logging is a very serious part of the VPN privacy policies, and going against it would destroy the point of having a VPN connection.
Thus, companies like expressVPN and surf shark have announced that they will leave the country, i.e. they will shut down their servers in India.
What does this change for Indian VPN users?
The news doesn’t change much for the Indian users since they will continue using even if the company closes down their servers because we have virtual servers. Indian users can still secure connections to their VPN servers and gain remote access.
Alternatives of a VPN
The growth in the cybersecurity realm has been unparalleled. Over the last 10 years, many technologies have risen promising internet privacy and safe browsing. If you don’t want to invest in VPNs, there are other options. Here are a few of them:
1. Proxy servers
Proxy servers have been in the secure internet space way longer than VPNs have been. Proxy servers are just server just servers with their own IP address. So when someone tries to trace your IP, they can only see the details of the server.
Tor browser is free and open-source software that allows its users to stay anonymous online. It does this by transferring all the internet traffic from the user through multiple nodes and encrypting it on each step, thus making it very difficult to trace back to the user. Tor is also legal in most countries. It’s the easiest way to maintain anonymity since you only have to download and install the browser once and then you can just surf the internet as you would do. Fun fact: Tor is a short form for ‘The onion browser’.
3. Personal VPN
You can overcome the disadvantages of paid VPN usage by making your own personal VPN. This way, you do not have to put your trust in a VPN service provider and you can get a secure connection.
In this article, we talked about the working of VPNs. We discussed the parameters that are important to look out for while buying a VPN. They include features like a kill switch, 2-factor authentication, and split tunnelling. It’s also important to look for authentic reviews, company location and the number of servers in and around your location.
Free VPNs are, for the most part, useless. In fact, most experts would warn you against a free VPN since they are known to be hosts for malware.
With the availability of cheap VPN services, buying one would be a safer option. There are many options, if not.
VPN is legal almost everywhere, but we have known some countries to have strict laws for VPN services. India introduces new laws that are almost counterintuitive to the purpose of using a VPN, thus prompting popular VPN companies like express VPN and surf shark to shut down all their servers in India.
VPN has proved to be a useful tool when it comes to privacy protection. In authoritarian countries, VPNs have been a catalyst for movements, freedom of speech and free press. But it’s also important to keep these companies under constant watch as they handle precious data that can cause problems if they fall into the wrong hands. When it comes to personal users, VPNs have their advantages and disadvantages. Every user must weigh the positives and negatives while choosing to buy the service.
More people are using the internet because of the Pandemic. There has been a rise in cybercrime since internet hygiene education hasn’t kept up pace with the fast-growing world of netizens. More people are working from cafes and digital nomads have emerged. Due to this, VPNs can offer priceless protection from malicious hackers. Do you think VPNs are a necessity for you? If yes, which service is the best?
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Frequently Asked Questions
Do VPNs Hide Your Torrenting and Online Activity?
Yes, most VPN services will help you hide your torrenting, even if it’s from the police. However, you can never be sure if a VPN company is 100 per cent honest with you. Thus, it’s important to ask the service, and their plan of action if law enforcement asks for the data of some users.
Can VPNs Bypass Censorship?
Yes, VPN servers spoof your location and therefore can help you escape various censorship laws.
Should I use a free VPN?
I would strongly warn you against free VPNs since using them would defeat the purpose of using a VPN at all. They often just spread malware and sell your data. Paid VPN options are mostly reasonably priced, so I think you should go for a paid version.
Do VPNs Protect Against Malware?
No, a VPN will not notify the VPN user of malware being present. It is certainly not an antivirus solution. If you were to click on some malicious link that installs malware, a VPN won’t be useful.
Will a VPN slow down my internet connection speed?
Yes, most times. Due to the additional steps, a VPN takes encryption on every exchange. The speed of the entire process is bound to decrease. However, you can control the level of speed decrease by changing protocols.
Does VPN drain the battery?
Yes, using a VPN increases your battery drainage by 5-15% since it performs additional functions. Again, this can also be manipulated by shifting between protocols.
Can VPN increase internet speed?
Rarely, but it’s possible. Sometimes ISPs throttle the speed for some sites that receive a lot of traffic. Using a VPN can help you get around this throttling since the ISP will not be able to recognise you.