Hackernoon logoWhat Is a VPN and What Are Its Alternatives? by@clearvpn

What Is a VPN and What Are Its Alternatives?

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VPNs or Virtual Private Networks have been here for quite a while. Today people use VPNs to secure themselves online, bypass regional restrictions, and even unlock TikTok. But are they really essential for an average user right now? And what about their enterprise usage? Let's look at VPNs from the present-day perspective and decide whether people should use VPNs in 2021 or look for alternatives. Evolution of VPNs 

Evolution of VPNs

A quick VPN 101: it has two main components — encryption and data tunneling. The encryption itself isn't something new, we've been using it since the first civilizations appeared. The earliest signs of ciphers date back to the times of Ancient Egypt. Like our technologies, encryption has consistently been evolving and improving. Present-day algorithms used in VPNs are so strong that even our most intelligent computers will need a couple of million years to break the encryption. 

Data tunneling for ordinary computer networks first appeared in 1996. A Microsoft engineer Gurdeep Singh-Pall described PPTP — Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol. In 1994, a company named TIS (Trusted Information Systems) developed IPSec, which worked alongside PPTP and made data tunneling faster and more secure. Thus the first VPNs were born. 

Companies like Microsoft and Cisco saw the value of VPN and introduced it to their computers. Those early VPNs targeted primarily professional users and businesses. To hit the needs of ordinary users, VPNs needed some time. And a few privacy scandals. 

The most known one is, of course, the case of Edward Snowden. If you spent the last ten years in a cryo capsule, here's a quick recap of what happened in 2013. Snowden, who'd worked for the CIA, leaked classified (i.e., secret) documents about global surveillance programs. According to him, National Security Agency spied on regular citizens and collected their private information from the Internet. 

Sometime before Snowden, a group of activists founded an Internet resource called WikiLeaks. Its purpose was to let whistleblowers anonymously expose classified information. In 2017, the website published documents about the hacking practices of the CIA. They described how the agency could get into users' phones, computers, and even smart TVs. These and many other scandals about mass surveillance made VPNs popular among usual people. Privacy advocates recommended using them, and many commercial VPN solutions for average users appeared on the market.  

Authorities all over the world have been imposing regulations on the Internet in their countries. The very first regulation on the web appeared in 1996 in the USA. Some governments even tried to shut down the Internet entirely — during the Arab Spring in 2011, Egypt, Lybia, and Syria suffered country-wide blackouts. The most recent Internet slow-downs happened in 2020 during the anti-government protests in Belarus. VPNs allow users in countries with harsh regimes to hide their traffic from the Internet Service Providers and connect to servers in other regions to unlock the unfavorable websites. 

Sometimes, it's not the government that blocks things online, but copyright. The most vivid example is Netflix, which has different content depending on the viewer's location. After its huge success, other streaming services like Hulu and HBO Max began to appear. Often backed up by movie-making studios, they can retrieve movies and shows from Netflix in some countries. As a result, Netflix can have more titles in some regions but feature exclusives in others. 

As these streaming services look at the user's IP to check their location, people started using VPNs to change it to a different country. With an IP address from an American VPN server, it's possible to watch US Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, and many other USA-only streaming services.

Common Issues With VPNs

The first issue with VPN is that it's not easy to check whether it’s using proper encryption. Not all of us have a degree in cryptography and computer science to trace data packages leaving our device. In July 2020, experts from comparitech discovered unprotected personal information of free VPN users that lacked any encryption. 

The second issue is the no-log policy, which free VPN providers claim to have but often don't. The thing is, developers still need to make money to keep the VPN servers working. That's why many free VPNs store their users' Internet habits and then sell them to third parties and advertisers. This information includes links people click on, websites they visit, and many other personal things. 

Another issue with VPNs is that, like any other software, they can have flaws and security holes. In 2020 hacker groups targeted VPN and Windows vulnerabilities of US governmental networks. Some attacks were successful, and the intruders gained unauthorized access to election support systems.

Alternatives to VPNs

Tor. Similar to VPN, Tor encrypts users' traffic and throttles it through a network of volunteer-run computers. As a result, the IP of the initial user is hidden. Tor is also the only way to access the .onion sites, known as the dark web. Tor's major downside is that it's very slow compared to VPNs. It's close to not possible to stream content or download files over the Tor network. 

Proxy servers also change the user's IP address but lack any encryption of data. Like Tor, they have quite slow connection speeds. 

dVPN. Another alternative to VPNs is decentralized VPNs (or dVPNs). Instead of rooting the traffic through a commercial VPN server, the dVPN has a decentralized network of individuals that provide their computers as a VPN server. For this, they may receive payment in cryptocurrency. 

Although we've mostly talked about VPNs as software for individual users, enterprises also use them. There are special business VPNs that secure the company's inside resources. To access them, an employee must connect to the company's VPN.

Software-Defined Perimeter, also known as ZTNA (Zero-Trust Network Access), is an alternative approach to company VPN. Instead of just looking at the device's IP address, SDP analyzes the OS of the device, the employee's location, and many other criteria to confirm their identity and trustability. Companies that adopt this approach often utilize SDP alongside their business VPNs. Simultaneously, SDP/ZTNA are just over the initial hype peak, meaning they’re up to five years away from providing real business value for early adopters.

Conclusion

The most common application of VPNs today is securing users' online data. But with further digitalization of new areas of our life, VPNs find new fields to be used in, like bypassing internet censorship or accessing more content on streaming services. There’re alternatives to VPNs like Tor and proxies, but they have their downsides, like slow connection speeds. Although many issues with VPNs exist, we still recommend using a VPN as a tool for security online. It’s essential to choose a VPN from a trusted developer with authority on the market and remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch VPN.   

On the subject of business VPNs, although SDP/ZTNA may look like a possible alternative to them, this technology is just over the initial hype peak. Large enterprises will need a couple of years to adopt it fully. Even when applied today, SDP/ZTNA often accompanies a business VPN.

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