Ten years ago, an acronym “VPN” would mean little to a casual internet user. VPNs and cyber security, in general, was something that concerned businesses participated in to secure their valuables. For years a VPN was just a secure gateway to a remote database that is available only for a selected number of employees or interested parties.
Currently, VPNs are enjoying a tremendous level of attention and rapidly growing user bases, and by the year 2022 are said to reach the market value of almost 36 billion U.S. dollars. Furthermore, the list of service providers grows more abundant as most cyber security companies, such as Kaspersky and Avast, are adding VPN services to their variety of products. Even Opera web browser launched an in-built VPN service.
There are several reasons that I will outline shortly for the current popularity of Virtual Private Networks. First and foremost, netizens are becoming aware of the possible dangers online, and are taking online security into their own hands. Second, the emergence of geographical restrictions, when particular content is only available in some locations and forbidden in others, kickstarted the business into what it is now — an extremely competitive and growing market.
In this article, I will elaborate on why this technology became so prevalent for commercial use. But before that, let’s briefly overview what VPNs are.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In layman’s terms, a VPN establishes a secure and private connection to the internet. Be it a web page, some information on a server, another computer in a torrenting session, — VPN secures this connection by encrypting the “tunnel” through which information flows.
Primarily, VPNs were developed for business purposes. The very first VPN dates back to 1996 when a Microsoft employee started developing the Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). The goal was to create a secure way for employees to connect to their companies intranet. However, over the years, the internet has changed so much, that VPN developers reacted, and two major VPN providers, NordVPN and ExpressVPN, were launched for commercial use in 2012 and 2009 respectively.
Why are VPNs gaining in popularity?
I’ve been using VPNs for nearly two decades and remember the times when it was an unimpressive and barely comfortable way to connect to specific databases. There’s little in common (apart from the technical side) between business and commercial VPNs. The latter is designed for a casual internet user, with a native App in Windows, Android, iOS, macOS, and so on. Their UX/UI is polished to the core, and everything, from switching a server, to changing the protocol, is, preferably, one click away. Ease-of-use definitely had something to do with increased popularity.
But a major breaking point was caused by geographical restrictions. It’s not a new phenomenon, and geo-blocks existed before the third millennium, but not to the scale it is used now. The tremendous success of streaming services like Netflix, HBO, BBC, YouTube, among others, brought geo-blocks straight to the face of a customer.
The logic behind the idea is pretty simple: regions buy licenses for some content, and if they don’t, then that content is not available at target location due to copyright laws. However, when you have paid good money to a streaming service provider, and you get “this video is not available in your country”, then consumers get angry.
For some time, the problem of limited access to content was solved by torrents. But torrent service providers are still persecuted, the download takes time, and there are no guarantees you’re not downloading a file filled with malware. That’s where VPN comes in. Not only it secures (not the malware part, sadly) your p2p session, hiding all your activity from any peeping-ISP, this software excels at bypassing geographical restrictions.
To put it short, geo-blocks deny access to specific I.P. addresses. If you’re browsing from Germany, then your ISP has issued you an I.P. address, that points to a location in Germany. And if you want to access some BBC content, BBC checks if your I.P. points to a location in the U.K., since it doesn’t, you get locked out. As mentioned before, VPNs redirect your traffic through their servers, so if you choose a server in the U.K., then you’ll be assigned an appropriate I.P. address, and unlock geo-blocked content. This procedure is so simple and effective that most streaming providers still can’t figure out a way to deal with VPN industry.
Last, but not least, are the security features that VPNs provide. Privacy has become a catchword in the tech community. This year, both Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai elaborated on the importance of privacy in their speeches. However, there is not a single software so dedicated to privacy protection as VPNs are (VPNs that log users activities are a different question for another topic). The ability to mask your I.P. address and encrypt all traffic both helps with geo-blocks and contributes to one’s online privacy.
The most important part of a high-quality VPN is the encryption that it uses. Both above-mentioned VPNs use AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) with 256-bit keys, the encryption standard that is used globally by governments and cyber security software developers. Without encryption, all of your browsing information is available to third party spectators: ISPs can take a look at what you’re doing, so can Google, and cyber criminals. Encryption buffs up online anonymity and protects against various surveillance agencies, as well as Man in The Middle attacks.
What’s next for the VPN industry?
As mentioned earlier, the VPN market is predicted to keep growing. New features are implemented yearly, that range from adBlock services to password managers. However, choosing the right VPN is crucial for privacy protection. Some VPNs have been caught logging users activities online, while others went through independent audits to prove their no-logs claim or test their software security features. One way or another, intense competition forces products to evolve and listen to consumers requests, and VPNs are off with a good start.