Hackernoon logoVPNs for beginners: what a VPN can and cannot do by@gershwin.aaron

VPNs for beginners: what a VPN can and cannot do

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@gershwin.aaronAaron Gershwin

Cyber security copy writer, tech support with a degree in political science

VPNs have become very popular in the last few years. Whether it’s the emergence of geographical restrictions, that VPNs help to bypass, or the evolution of cyber crime and privacy issues, — VPN market skyrocketed and is predicted to keep growing. This gave birth to a massive competition between VPN providers, and, sadly, some of them mislead their customers with false advertising and claims of security.
However, there are VPN providers that stand by their word and care about anonymity and privacy. But before choosing the right one, it’s essential to know the limits of this cyber security software. There’s no one magical App, that will guarantee your privacy online but knowing the capabilities and limits of the ones you use will significantly improve your browsing habits and lower the risk of becoming a cyber victim. In this article, I will briefly overview what a VPN can and cannot do.

Traffic encryption

Encryption is one of the two main reasons people choose to use a VPN, second being IP masking. Back in the days before the transition to HTTPS, all browsing information could be easily spied upon. It’s a topic of discussion whether VPNs additional encryption will still be useful once every web page implements encryption, but until HTTPS is appropriately secured and tested good quality VPNs provide an extra layer of security that doesn’t hurt.
However, VPN does not encrypt all of the traffic. It will secure the connection from your device to VPNs servers, protect against ISP sniffing, and hackers that want to take a look at your browsing history. But it will not encrypt and hide the traffic that goes from VPNs server to target destination and vice versa. Thus it’s essential to understand that interested parties can still notice any illegal activity done online, but it will be much harder to track where did it come from.
To summarize, VPN does not and will not make one completely anonymous online and should not be used for any illegal activity. If you’re an investigative journalist living under dictatorship, then a few $ per month VPN subscription should not be your first line of defense. On the other hand, if used with care, VPN will come in handy and should be used alongside other privacy protection software.

IP address obfuscation

The second reason VPNs are so popular is because it allows changing the IP address. IT giants like Google and Facebook use various trackers to follow their users by IP address, and if you change it, then following you online becomes quite a job.
Another benefit is accessing geographically blocked content. Streaming services like Netflix, HBO, BBC, and alike, use geo-blocks, and it’s frustrating that you don’t get all material even if you pay for the service. By changing the IP address, you can pretend to browse from the USA even if you’re located in Europe, and thus unlock the USA content.
However, keep in mind that streaming services always look for ways to block VPNs, and most likely, you will encounter some troubles from time to time. So look for a VPN that has an efficient 24/7 live chat support. Professional support will help you fix the issue in the matter of minutes.
Also, IP masking does not equal anonymity. It’s a step forward, but there are more ways to track a user. Browser fingerprint is one, and some say even more efficient, way to track a user because people do have different system configurations and can be identified by them. Consider using privacy and anonymity oriented browser extensions, and pick a browser that was developed with privacy protection in mind.

Logging practices

If you use a VPN for privacy protection, then you know that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can monitor everything you do online. This is where a VPN comes in. It routes all your traffic through their servers and applies encryption, so not even your ISP can monitor what you do online.
However, this means that your VPN provider can monitor everything you do online. So if you picked a shady VPN, that logs all your activity and then sells it to third parties, then it’s a waste of money. Look for a VPN that can back up the no-logs claim.
Don’t pick VPNs from 14-eyes countries, since they must abide by the law and if requested must provide their users’ activities. Also, look for independent audits, some VPNs willingly submit to independent audits to prove their privacy protection features, and this is a strong argument that they deliver on a promise.

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