What is VPN? Finally, truly anonymous browsing!

As an internet user, you’ve probably heard of VPN. But what exactly is VPN and how does a VPN-server work? If there’s one constant to the internet, it’s change. The streaming of movies and music has become a part of our daily lives. And for years in data transfer rates were simply too low to stream sounds or images. But now, things deemed impossible only a few years back, are standard practice today.

One thing that has lagged behind in these years of rapid internet growth, are privacy concerns. Only recently has the general audience become aware of the many threats facing them. Due to news about sizeable data leaks. Or because of reports of malware and ransomware that locks down computers, unlocking only after their owners pay off the cyber criminals responsible. The internet, in short, is not a particularly safe place at the moment – if it ever was.

One returning topic concerning internet safety issues is a VPN. VPN ensures surfing that’s both anonymous and safe. But how does it work? And in which ways do you use it? Why is it safer than regular internet use in the first place. And how does VPN make anonymous surfing possible?

How do internet connections work?

To fully understand VPN, it is important to understand the basics of internet usage. When you go online, through your smartphone, tablet or PC computer, your internet provider connects your computer to the website or service you are looking for. And for this, your provider uses your ‘IP address’. IP address roughly translates into ‘your home address on the internet’. An IP address identifies individual computers, making them traceable and recognizable online.

When you use a website, say Ebay, your computer (or smartphone et cetera) connects to the server that hosts Ebay’s website. This ‘server’ is simply another computer, but one built for the specific purpose of enabling multiple connections at once without loss of information. The server receives a request from your computer to send the website’s information to you, while using your IP-address to find your computer.

Online tracking image

Tracking

This seems fairly okay, doesn’t it? Only a lot more happens at the same time you’re browsing. While you click away and digest the information you see, the server’s computer banks store your computer’s IP-address. Together with your ‘behaviour’ on the website (where you look, what you click, et cetera). ‘They’ convert into ‘data’ about visitors. Ebay may use these data to upgrade their service. And track your behaviour over time and over several visits to the same website. It even may sell off the information they have about you and other customers to other companies. Without you knowing about it – it’s data they collected about you, which companies consider their property.

What is VPN?

This line of reasoning is fairly general these days, independent of the particulars about the websites you visit. Now, this is where VPN comes into play. A VPN, short for ‘Virtual Private Network’, ensures that your computer can no longer be traced. It works like this: instead of connecting to your internet provider, your computer connects to a VPN-server, through a secure, encrypted connection. Next, the VPN-server contacts the website you are looking for. Here, details about your visit are stored like always, but based on the IP-address of the VPN-server, instead of on yours. Ebay may still collect details about your visit, but it will not be able to link these data to you!

VPN metaphor

To further explain the difference, let’s look at old fashioned postal services. Using the internet in the regular way is like sending off a letter. Without VPN, your home address is up for grabs the moment you drop your letter in the mailbox. Clear for everyone to read and use for whatever purpose. But send the same letter through a VPN-server, and suddenly you’re using a false home address and a courier service. On top of that, your letter will be written in a secret code, courtesy of a layer of encryption security most VPN-servers apply. Ensuring peeping Toms will never understand what you wrote.

VPN, in short, protects your surfing from the prying eyes of third parties. Its servers are built to have huge capacity, ensuring the simultaneous use of hundreds of users at the same time. This alone acts as a safeguard, for how will third parties find information about you when hundreds of people use the same IP-address at the same time?

Illustration: what is VPN?

Setting up a VPN server

You can easily set up a VPN server for yourself. Most providers offer apps to set up a VPN for Android or iOS devices. These apps that are easy-to-use and popular. PC and Mac have multiple options to set up VPN, but most PC and Mac users choose apps too. App-based installation saves you the time you need for reading up on other, more complicated setups.

Most VPN-apps offer a variety of server locations to connect to, for the simple reason that many websites change their offerings based on the locality of your IP-address. They change advertisements based on where IP is registered, or block content that is region-specific, such as movie clips or music. This is where these annoying ‘this content is not available in your region’ pop-ups on Youtube come from. Pop-ups you can easily avoid if you use a VPN-server away from your actual, geographical location. You can find more info on testing your VPN connection in our dedicated article on this matter.

Geoblocking world map

Bypass region-specific settings

In this respect, VPN sets you up for a nice game of geographic content hopping. Services like Netflix tie content and language settings to specific regions, making it interesting for American users to check out, say, the offerings of Netflix UK – and vice versa. Others use VPN to gain access to region-specific services like Pandora (US only) or BBC iPlayer (UK only). Because their servers will only recognize the locality of the VPN server, not of the users behind it. Travelling abroad? VPN makes it possible to watch your favorite television show from back home on a computer, even when it’s geoblocked. This is the main reason for many expats to use VPN. It allows them to stay up to date on what’s happening in their home country,. Even when content is blocked in their country of residence.

Of course most streaming services aren’t happy about this and will try to block these IP-addresses. Over the years, their efforts have resulted in a cat-and-mouse game between VPN providers and streaming companies. Each time a bunch of IP-addresses connected to VPN servers are blocked, new VPN servers spring up. All spilling out brand new IP-addresses for their clients to use.

Surfing anonymously

Online anonymous browsing is getting more important. Stories on huge data leaks and identity fraud break all the time, underlining the importance of personal data protection. With regular internet use you’ll never know who’s spying on you. They could be companies, they could be from your government, checking up on their citizens for who knows what reason. Needless to say this plays into fears of (too much) government control. Who knows what value is attached to the raw data a government has about you?

Bittorrent through VPN

Into downloading movies? Programmes like Popcorn Time use Bittorrent, a peer-to-peer protocol that up- and downloads (the oftentimes illegal) movie content while you’re watching. This makes viewers engage in criminal activities. Run these protocols through a VPN server, and law enforcers will have a hard time tracking you after you ran that lousy movie on that rainy night.

Online security

One obvious advantage of using VPN is increased security. Most people today have moved their everyday affairs online, think of shopping or banking. Without the use of VPN, things like passwords, banking details and sensitive emails will travel the internet by means of relatively insecure connections. But use a encrypted server, and you are much safer, even when you use something as insecure as public Wifi. Hackers will not be able to trace information back to you, because they won’t be able to ‘see’ who’s behind the data.

Free wifi symbol

Each provider offers a slightly different form of protection. And we wrote a separate blogpost. Just to help you finding the right information about security protocols and the terminology linked to online security, we wrote a separate blogpost.

Bargain hunting

The use of VPN sets you up for some nice online shopping discounts, especially when you use websites notorious for their tracking behaviour. Sites for airline tickets are famous for this. Their tracking software is constantly adjusting prices for tickets, based on – you guessed it – things like your IP-address and data gathered from prior visits, and from cross-referencing your profile with those of people similar to you. This leads to pricing that is targeted at individual visitors – your neighbour may look at the same flight ticket at the same time, but see a different price on their screen.

These tracking systems are super advanced, and they operate to squeeze every cent they can from unsuspecting customers. But customers that rely on VPN-servers have one big advantage. By hopping from IP to IP, they can fool websites into believing they are new customers. And check which online identity yields the lowest price for the ticket you want. The same goes for other shopping activities. If a foreign shop offers discounts to local customers, you simply set your IP to that location and enjoy the lower pricing. The only thing left to do is find a way to have the items sent to your geographical address!

Kodi

Kodi is a popular method to stream television and movies. The Kodi app installs directly on your TV-set or tablet, and uses standard IP-addresses by default. Fortunately it is possible to route your TV and tablet through a VPN setup too, ensuring the streaming of your favorite TV show isn’t used by malicious parties. At the same time, your TV and tablet now circumvent any geoblocking built into television apps.

Finding the best VPN-providers

We hope this information is helpful in deciding on using a VPN-server for your internet use. Services and providers come in different shapes and use different methods to improve secure use of the net, and charge different prices. One option is to use free VPN-services, but what does ‘free’ entail, specifically, and what (dis)advantages are attached to such a service? And what exactly makes relatively expensive services expensive?

To help you decide, we have reviewed a range of VPN-providers for you, looking at things like quality, range of services, and pricing.

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