If I told you that the internet is a double-ended sword, would you agree?
Confused? Allow me to explain…
While the internet is becoming much more accessible around the world, the cyber threats surrounding it are also growing alarmingly.
To give you a perspective, 58% of the world’s population now have access to the internet, and the estimated cost of cyber-attacks is expected to cost $6 trillion in damages by 2021.
With online privacy eroding by the day, a good chunk of privacy-conscious folks are turning to Virtual Private Networks – VPN. In fact, it is estimated that the VPN global market is worth $23.60 billion.
But what even is a VPN, and what makes it so crucial to use in 2019?
Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to discuss in this comprehensive guide and hopefully answer all of the questions you have about VPNs in general.
So without further ado, let’s get started…
What is a VPN?
A VPN or a Virtual Private Network is a tool that allows users to safely access the web while also getting around content restrictions and censorships.
By enabling users to connect to secure VPN servers all over the world, a VPN service masks user IP addresses and establishes encrypted tunnels through which secure data can travel without getting spied upon by ISPs, government agencies, or snoopers.
How Do VPNs Work?
As I already mentioned, a VPN creates a virtual encrypted connection between you and the secure VPN servers. But this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense does it? Let’s dive in a bit deeper shall we?
When you don’t use VPNs, all of your network traffic is out in the open for anyone to snoop on. Your ISP knows everything you do online, and any malicious entity can get a hold of your data through a variety of hacking techniques.
Compare that to a VPN and everything gets much more secure. Instead of your secure data flowing unprotected, a VPN encrypts your network traffic making it unreadable to anyone looking spy on you.
Not only that, but a VPN also masks your IP address to help you appear as if you’ve magically switched your geographic location. This way, you can get past geo-restrictions and access geo-blocked services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer and more.
Still with me? Here’s a quick recap:
- A VPN encrypts your network traffic making it virtually impossible for ISPs and hackers to decrypt.
- A VPN masks your IP address and helps your spoof your geolocation to bypass geo-restrictions.
Are VPNs Even Secure Enough?
Without a doubt yes, VPNs are actually quite secure, that is if you use premium VPN services. There’s a reason why so many people use paid VPNs and a lot of it has to with the level of encryption and features they offer.
For instance, renowned VPN services come packed with a plethora of features like secure protocols, unbreakable encryption, Kill switch and more to keep you totally safe and secure. We’ll take a more in-depth look at all these features later on this guide.
Anyways, in comparison, free VPNs don’t offer too many features and are infamous for mining or stealing user data. Even more shockingly, according to statistics, 84% of free VPNs available on Google Playstore have been found to leak user data.
In a nutshell, free VPNs should be avoided because:
- Embedded malware
- Malicious trackers
- VPN leaks
- Limited features
- Slow speeds and limited bandwidth
Not a smart decision if you ask me…
Why use VPNs?
VPNs have tons of use cases. Some people might use it for secure browsing, while others may use it to bypass geo-blocks associated with Netflix, BBC iPlayer and other VoD services.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, everyone has different needs. Here are a few reasons why most people use VPNs:
- To browse the internet without exposing your true location or IP address.
- Use powerful encryption to prevent ISPs, third parties, and government agencies from spying on you.
- Access geo-restricted or prohibited services like Torrents, Kodi and streaming services anywhere in the world.
- Beat price discrimination by spoofing your IP address and get better prices for Netflix & steam games.
- Carry out secure banking, online shopping and share personal information on public Wi-Fi online without worrying about hackers.
Are VPNs legal to Use?
Mostly yes, but there are some countries that ban the use of VPNs. For instance, most Middle Eastern countries like Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have deemed VPN usage to be either totally illegal or prohibited.
This is also the case for countries like China and Russia that uses strict firewalls to not only block geo-restricted websites but also VPN traffic.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t use VPNs at all. In fact, most VPN services that use obfuscated servers can easily bypass firewalls like GFW by masking encrypted VPN traffic to look like regular HTTPS traffic.
Pretty cunning right?
Bottom line, other than a few prohibited regions, VPN usage is legal pretty much everywhere in the world.
How to set up a VPN app?
As jarring as it may seem, setting up a VPN is actually quite easier than you might think. Although the installation process of most VPNs might vary from provider to provider, there are general steps that should get you started right away.
Here’s how to get started with most VPNs:
- Decide which VPN service you want to go with and purchase a subscription plan that fits your needs.
- Once you’re done with that, download the VPN app for your device or directly install it on your router.
- Next, log in with your credentials and connect to a VPN server of your choice.
- Additionally, you can tweak with protocols and differnet setting to fine-tune your VPN experience.
VPN Features & What They Do?
Most premium VPNs in the market advertise a variety of features which can be quite difficult for non-tech-savvy individuals to understand.
To save you the hassle, I’ve compiled a few popular VPN features and their uses below:
A Kill switch is a powerful technology that prevents your IP address from accidentally leaking in event that your VPN connection fails abruptly.
A VPN Kill switch works more or less like a failsafe mechanism built into VPN apps for phones and desktops that automatically disconnects you from the internet until your VPN connection is restored.
The Kill switch feature is normally disabled by default and usually needs to be activated from the setting option. With this feature enabled, there’s no possibility of your IP address accidentally gets exposed.
Types of VPN Kill Switches
Typically, there are two types of VPN Kill Switches, active and passive. Let’s check out what each of these Kill switches has to offer.
Active Kill Switch
This types of Kill switch is designed to know when you’re disconnected from your VPN service and prevents your device from connecting to unsecured networks like public Wi-Fi.
This type of Kill switch is less desirable as it sends Meta information of your network status every time your VPN connection fails.
Passive Kill Switch
In comparison to an active Kill switch, Passive Kill switches are much more secure.
Instead of sending Meta information to the VPN servers, a Passive Kill switch automatically disconnects you from the internet the moment your VPN connection fails.
Double VPN – AKA Multihop
As the name suggests, Double VPN encrypts your traffic twice through two different VPN servers.
By enabling the Double VPN or Multihop features, everything that sent or received over your network is encrypted twice and the data source IP address is also modified twice.
For instance, you could be connected to a server in the US at one end, and a server in the Middle East on the other end simultaneously. This makes it near impossible for anyone to trace your real geographic location.
With that being said, there’s just one caveat of Double VPNs and that is sluggish speeds. With too much overhead encryption, your internet speeds are surely going to suffer quite a bit.
VPN protocols are what drive your VPN apps. They’re responsible for secure and fast data transmission between the VPN server and your device. But which VPN protocol should you choose and what’s the difference?
To make it easier for you, let’s check out a few of the most popular VPN protocols and what they’re good for below:
OpenVPN is one of the most popular VPN protocol available in the market today. It is not only super secure but is also compatible with a range of mainstream devices.
Best of all, since OpenVPN is actually open-source, this protocol is quite versatile and offers rock-solid privacy over UDP and TCP ports.
Overall, OpenVPN’s OpenSSL library and TLS protocols to offer excellent performance and unbreakable encryption that’s perfect for gaming, streaming, torrenting, and secure browsing.
Developed by Microsoft Internet, IKEv2 or Internet Key Exchange version 2 is a fast and secure VPN protocol that’s widely used till today.
Part of the reason why this protocol is so popular is because it is pre-configurable in many operating like Windows, Mac OS, and even iOS. Another reason to love this protocol is its rather unique re-connecting feature which can quickly re-establishing a connection with the VPN server.
Aside from being fast, reliable and lightweight, this protocol has one caveat. The fact that Microsoft developed this protocol means there can be hidden backdoors to this protocol’s encryption.
PPTP or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol is one of the oldest VPN protocols around. In fact, this protocol will become obsolete because of its known security vulnerabilities.
This protocol might be able to deliver fast speeds, but it is no longer considered a safe protocol because of obvious privacy and security reasons.
As the name suggests, L2TP or Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol is a tunneling protocol and doesn’t offer any encryption by itself.
This is why L2TP is never used on its own and pretty much always paired with IPSec for encryption. But still, L2TP is still much secure than PPTP and comes built-in on many operating systems.
That being said, L2TP/IPSec isn’t known for its speeds. In fact, with double-encapsulation, you can’t expect speeds to blow you away.
SSTP or Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol is another VPN protocol that’s built by Microsoft. But unlike IKEv2, SSTP is much secure and has no known vulnerabilities.
SSTP uses symmetric-key cryptography by combining 2048-bit SSL /TLS certificates for authentication and 256-bit SSL keys for encryption.
Overall, SSTP is quite secure and is compatible with Mac, Linux, Windows, Android, iOS and even BSD systems too.
VPN encryption is the process of converting plain text into gibberish in order to prevent unauthorized entities from making use of our sensitive information.
Here’s how encryption basically works:
Plain Text: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
Encrypted Text: DEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABC
With end-to-end encryption, your plain text gets encrypted with a special key which can only be decrypted by the receiver on the other end with the same key. For any snoopers, none of the intercepted data would make any sense.
Now there are a variety of encryption techniques like Twofish, TripleDES, RSA, Symmetric and asymmetric encryption, but discussing all these techniques here would be too long for this blog. Long story short, with VPN encryption, you’ll need to make sure you’re at least getting AES or 128 bits encryption.
This encryption standard might be hard to find in free VPNs, but most premium VPNs do offer this level of encryption if not better.
VPN logs & its types
Imagine someone following you all day and keeping tabs on everything you do, creepy right?
Well, that exactly what VPN logs are. With VPNs, you’re often going to see advertisements like No logs, but in my experience reviewing VPNs for years, that’s not always the case.
While some providers choose to log just your user name, password and email address, others might go above and beyond to create a unique profile about you.
To be completely honest with you, VPN logs can be quite complicated to understand. To make it easier for you, here are three essential types of VPN logs you should look out for:
Activity logs – Extremely intrusive
Activity logs are the nastiest. As the name suggests, activity logs basically keep track of everything you do online.
For instance, your browsing history, times you connected to the VPN server, your IP address along with other metadata is stored in order to comply with regulations or for advertising purposes.
But this type of logs is typically stored by free VPNs and something you’re not going to experience from premium VPNs.
Connection logs – Less intrusive
Compared to Activity logs, connection logs are a lot less intrusive. This type of logs keeps track of dates times, IP addresses and connection data.
This might seem a lot, however, in reality, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to determine your online activities with such limited data.
Connection logs are typically kept for 1-15 days and are mostly used for troubleshooting and optimization purposes.
In terms of security, connection logs pose little threat, however, theoretically speaking if someone puts in a lot of elbow grease, your true location can be compromised.
No logs – This is what you want
No logs is what you should be looking for. But as I said earlier, a lot of VPN providers nowadays misuse this term quite a lot.
Even though your VPN provider might guarantee zero logs, you should still go through the providers logging policy and make sure none of your data is being logged.
Types of VPNs
While all VPNs pretty much look and feel the same, there are actually two different types of VPNs with totally different functionalities.
Let’s check out each of these VPNs below:
Remote Access VPN
Remote-access VPNs are the most commonly used type of VPNs out there. This type of VPN is not only perfect for businesses, but also for home-use.
Remote-access VPNs are used to establish a secure connection between your device and the private VPN network through the Internet.
This type of VPN is mostly used to bypass regional restrictions, but remote employees can also use it to access files and resources on the private corporate networks.
Site – to – Site VPN
A Site-to-Site VPN or a Router-to-Router VPN is more geared towards corporate use. instead of being primarily used to stream shows on Netflix, Site-to-Site VPNs are used to securely connect offices in different locations on different networks.
Basically, Site-to-site VPNs are used to create interconnecting virtual tunnels between multiple networks at geographically distant office locations.
This type of VPNs are even more secure and only allows secure communication between two routers after successful authentication. Part of the reason why this type of VPN is used on the corporate level.
Free vs Paid VPN
Although free VPNs might seem tempting to use, I don’t really recommend them. That’s because free VPNs are not actually free.
Sounds ridiculous right? just hear me out…
You see, maintaining a decent VPN service costs a lot of money. After all, robust servers, infrastructure, and full-time employees aren’t cheap.
You might have heard of a popular saying – ‘If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold‘. Well in the case of free VPNs, this is actually true.
So how do free VPN services make money then?
Well, by selling your data of course. Since free VPNs are mainly desinged to log as much data about you as possible, such VPN services are just not worth using.
Just to give you a perspective, according to Top10VPN’s investigation, 86% of free VPNs were found violating user privacy and sharing data with third parties.
Paid VPNs on the other hand are a way better option. Not only are paid VPNs free from data logging antics, but they are quite affordable as well. A reliable VPN service should only cost you between $3-$8/month.
What are VPN leaks?
VPN leak is a known vulnerability in a lot of mainstream VPNs. Although its pretty self explanatory, but for all you newbies out there, a leak occurs when a VPN client fails to obscure your DNS, WebRTC or IP address.
This type of leak occurs when your IP address temporarily escapes the encrypted VPN tunnel. IP leaks can be either be short term or a reoccurring issue.
If your VPN client access the default servers of your ISP rather than the anonymous VPN servers, your VPN might be suffering from leaks. In case your IP address abruptly leaks, your true identity including your actual geo-location will get exposed.
DNS leaks are also quite nasty and can occur when your network requests are processed by your internet provider rather than your VPN service provider.
DNS leak can reveal your DNS requests aka your browsing history, your IP address, your internet service provider, and your actual geo-location.
Last but not least, we have WebRTC leaks. This type of leak is not actually caused by your VPN apps, but though chromium-based browsers like Firefox, Chrome, and others that use WebRTC APIs.
In case you experience a WebRTC leak, your IP address including other device information like OS, make-model, and connected peripherals will get exposed.
VPN performance & speed test
Let’s be honest for a second, VPNs do have an impact on speeds. Now, this impact can be both negative and positive as well. But generally speaking, your network speeds are going to be altered when you connect to a VPN server.
This is because a lot goes on behind the scenes that we don’t really get to see. Thousands of data packets are encrypted, decrypted and transmitted every second. All this processing naturally takes a toll on network speeds.
That being said, this doesn’t mean you cannot improve your speeds. In fact, just by changing to a VPN server that’s closest to your actual location can make a hell of a lot of difference.
Now you might be wondering, how exactly do you even test VPN speeds?
Well, don’t worry, it’s actually quite easy. Here how you can perform a simple VPN speed test:
- First, test your baseline internet speeds without connecting to a VPN server though
- Test your baseline internet speeds without connecting to a VPN server through speedtest.net.
- Next, connect to a VPN server closest to your location and run the speed test again.
- Once you’re done, you can compare the test results and verify your speeds with and without a VPN.
- If you’re getting slower speeds on one server, you can simply switch to another server or switch protocols.
Disadvantages of using VPNs?
Although there are tons of advantages of using VPNs, there are a few disadvantages as well. Here are a few obvious disadvantages of using a VPN service:
As I mentioned earlier, VPNs are considered illegal in some countries. Take China for example. Anyone caught using an unapproved VPN service can be fined up to 15,000 yuan, which is approximately $2200 USD.
VPN legalities don’t just end there, in fact, in some countries, you can either face a heftier fine or possible jail sentence in some cases.
If your country doesn’t permit VPN usage, you can either try using premium VPNs or don’t indulge in VPNs at all. It’s just that straightforward.
Next, we move on to compatibility issues. As long as you’re using a popular operating system, you should have no issues, however, if you use a less popular OS or a device, not many VPNs might be compatible.
This is exactly why gaming consoles, TVs and casting devices don’t have native support for VPNs. If your device is incompatible for some reason, you’ll have to resort to configuring a VPN app directly on your router and hope for the best.
When you connect to a VPN server, your internet speeds are going to suffer a bit. With added overhead encryption, you’re going to experience a speed drop of around 10 to 15%. But in most cases, with a highspeed internet connection, you’re not going experience too much of a difference.
VPN VS Tor, what’s the difference?
Although VPN and Tor sound quite similar in terms of functionality, what goes behind the scene is actually quite different. For instance, at the very core, where VPN is desinged to offer privacy, Tor is geared more towards anonymity.
To make it even easier to understand, A VPN encrypts your network traffic and prevents snoopers from seeing what you do online. Whereas a Tor network routes your network traffic through multiple nodes to make you completely anonymous on the web.
In comparison to VPNs, Tor’s open-source nature and efficient routing techniques make it much more secure than VPNs. However, VPNs are much more convenient to use.
Can you stream with VPNs?
Absolutely yes. Since reliable VPNs have the technology to bypass even the harshest geo-restrictions, a VPN should help you unblock popular VoD services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and others quite easily.
But how is this even possible?
Well, by spoofing your geo-location and masking your IP address, a VPN client can help you virtually appear anywhere in the world thus bypassing geo-blocks and content restrictions.
Do VPNs work with Android & iOS?
Actually yes, premium VPNs offer support for both iOS and Android operating systems. However, mobile VPN apps are going to be stripped out of more advanced featrues.
In terms of compatibility, VPN providers don’t just offer standalone apps for mobile operating systems, but also configuration file which can be directly installed through the native settings menu.
That being said, for a more secure and feature-rich VPN experience, a desktop VPN app or direct router configuration should be your best bet.
Can you torrent with VPNs?
Aside from streaming, VPNs are really popular for P2P and torrenting as well. Since torrenting still falls in a gray area, a lot of countries and ISPs might not allow access to torrenting websites. After all, most pirated content is downloaded through torrents.
Compared to a few years ago, laws regarding torrenting and P2P have gotten much stricter.
This is where VPNs can be seriously helpful. Countries like Europe, the United States, and Australia are cracking down on torrenting websites to counter digital piracy.
Although I’m totally against digital piracy and copyright infringement, I still believe a VPN can help those that indulge in torrenting for personal use.
Do VPNs support routers?
Yes, VPNs are actually compatible with most new routers. In fact, you can flash a router with DD-WRT or Tomato open-source software and configure a VPN app directly on your router.
Even if you’re not too tech-savvy, you can purchase a pre-configured router from FlashRouters.com for a considerably affordable price.
But is it even worth it?
Well, yes. Considering that you can protect multiple devices connected to your router with juts one subscription plan, a router VPN setup can save you from a whole lot of hassle.
Can VPNs offer 100% anonymity?
To be honest, no!
Since using malicious techniques like browser fingerprinting can actually decrypt VPN traffic, it is quite possible for high-level hackers and surveillance agencies to penetrate the security of your VPN client.
But on a lighter note, opting secure browsers, ad-blockers and combining Tor over VPN, you can vastly reduce the chance of ever coming under the radar.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, no technology is foolproof. There’s always going to be someone or some technology that can compromise your privacy.
Future of VPN – Is it just a bubble?
The VPN industry has grown exponentially over the span of the past 10 years. Just to give you a perspective, the VPN industry generated more than $15 billion in revenue back in 2016.
Compare these figures to 2018 and the figure rosed to $20.60 billion. If you think that’s crazy, this figure is expected to reach by $35.73 billion by 2022.
Since the cybersecurity industry has experienced a huge surge in demand, the market for VPNs is actually flourishing.
Overall, as more cases of hacks, identity theft and regional censorship will likely occur, VPNs are only going to rise in popularity. To sum it up, VPN will continue to drive the ever-growing surge in demand over the next decade.
VPNs are a god-sent for privacy-conscious users around the world.
Despite coming off as something that’s overwhelmingly complicated to use, VPNs are actually quite straightforward.
I hope this guide was helpful for you, hopefully, you now have a better idea of what the VPN technology actually is.
So what are you waiting for, grab yourself a VPN service and secure your privacy today!