What Is a VPN? Everything You Need to Know

The Neeva Team on 08/20/21

If you use the internet (and who doesn’t?) you are almost certainly aware of the many risks to your personal data privacy and security. Advertisers track your activity and location so they can sell you things more effectively. Sensitive information that you share with a trusted site may be intercepted or stolen. And in some parts of the world, governments censor content or track and punish online behaviors considered acceptable elsewhere.

VPNs are one of many tools you can use to protect your personal data online. They work in conjunction with protective measures like strong passwords, secure HTTP connections, anti-malware tools, and regular software updates. Let’s get into what you need to know about VPNs.

What is a VPN?

When you connect to the internet, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) assigns your networked device (typically a router or a broadband modem) a unique public IP address, basically a mailing address or unique identifier for that device. An IP address associates everything you do within your home or work network with that device on your internet connection, and the internet protocol HTTP passes this information in “plain text,” which can easily be read and understood by external snoops or eavesdroppers. If you’re privacy-conscious on the internet, then this is bad news!

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, provides a way to gain access to the public internet by means of a secure connection. This means your communication is cryptographically protected, and your identity and browsing history is obfuscated through a third-party server, making it very difficult to trace activity back to you. VPNs can be used with any of your connected devices: computer, tablet, and smartphone in particular. VPNs are also commonly used by professionals to access corporate resources from personal devices.

There are two basic types of VPNs:

  1. Remote access VPN. This type of VPN is used by both personal and corporate users to connect to a remote server or LAN. The network connection is through the public internet but is secure and private. This is the approach used by commercial VPN services.
  2. Site-to-site VPN. This type of VPN connects a LAN to a LAN to create a private network. It is generally used for corporate networking, and requires specialized equipment. Within a company this approach can create an Intranet-based VPN, connecting multiple networks or locations together into a private company-wide network. When deployed between two or more companies this can create an Extranet-based VPN, enabling a shared private work environment.

Can I still be tracked online while using a VPN?

Using a VPN enhances your security, but doesn’t make you completely untraceable. ISPs and other outsiders may determine that certain internet traffic is flowing through a VPN service based on its IP address, port number, or deep packet inspection. Some governments, notably China, block IP traffic that they determine is routed through a VPN service.

A VPN service that keeps logs of customer activity is subject to discovery by local governments. Some VPN services even install “back doors” to enable government access. And poorly managed technology, including “DNS leaks,” can allow outsiders to identify your real IP address. If you use a free VPN then it may be that the provider’s technology is not cutting edge and its policies favor commercial exploitation over your personal privacy.

Unfortunately, there are other ways outsiders can track your behavior, even if you use a secure VPN.

  • Websites use tracking cookies for valid reasons like maintaining your shopping cart, but third-party cookies set by advertisers can be used for cross-site tracking, retargeting and ad-serving. These can easily be blocked by browser plug-ins.
  • Browser finger-printing is a technique which advertisers use to uniquely identify you based on your device configuration, software, and other factors. Modern security-focused web browsers can prevent this.
  • Malware, if inadvertently installed on your device, can enable all manner of tracking. This should be prevented or eradicated with a good anti-malware package.

How does a VPN work?

A personal VPN connection involves a software application (the VPN program itself) running on the user’s PC, smartphone, or another device. (While VPNs originally required a piece of hardware, today’s VPNs are completely software-based.) The VPN software connects and authenticates over the internet to a VPN service provider, establishing an encrypted communication “tunnel” from the device to the VPN server. This secure and protected tunnel is your device’s new route to the external internet.

When a VPN user surfs the web, external websites treat the external VPN server as though it is the user’s actual device. That VPN server’s IP address implies a user location to anyone watching, so the user can appear to be anywhere.

Benefits of using a VPN

There are many good reasons to use a VPN as part of your internet strategy, including:

  • Ensuring privacy. VPNs apply strong encryption, preventing outsiders from viewing your sensitive content.
  • Hiding your IP address. A VPN service assigns you a shared IP address, effectively masking your identity. This prevents your online activities from being linked to you by your ISP, websites, advertisers, or governments.
  • Changing your apparent location. You may need to do this to allow access to streaming services like Netflix while traveling out of your home country or to access content blocked by your government.
  • Hiding your online activity. You may not be aware, but your ISP may be selling information about your online activities to data brokers, who further aggregate and sell information about you. Using a VPN makes this information unavailable to them.
  • Corporate network access. Many companies enable remote access to portions of their secure networks — for employees working from home, to link together Local Area Networks (LANs) in different locations, or to provide access to other firms with whom they collaborate. VPN technologies support this, although usually by means of corporate-provided hardware and software.

When to use a VPN

Many people who value their online privacy employ a VPN all the time. The added step of starting the VPN app and authenticating is minor compared to the benefits. Here are several situations when using a VPN is particularly recommended:

  • Public WiFi networks. A VPN connection is strongly recommended when you connect to a WiFi network that may be untrustworthy, regardless of whether that network is password secured or not.
  • Private browsing. Even on a trustworthy network, if your online activity is particularly sensitive (e.g. financial transactions) or if you just want to prevent outsiders from tracking you, then a VPN is a good idea.
  • Accessing geo-restricted content. If you are located in a place where access to the online content you desire is blocked, a VPN connection can make you appear to be located where access is permitted.
  • Circumventing censorship. If the content that you wish to access is blocked by the local government, a VPN connection can circumvent this blockage. (Though please be respectful of local laws!)
  • Circumventing ISP throttling. Some ISPs slow down the speed of certain kinds of content you retrieve from the internet, targeting streaming services like YouTube or Netflix, or file-sharing applications like BitTorrent. The easiest way to avoid this is to employ a VPN connection, which prevents even your ISP from knowing what kind of content you are retrieving.
  • Shopping for the best deal. Online stores and travel services don’t treat all shoppers the same, offering better prices to some locations than others. A VPN can make you appear to be in an alternative location, letting you search for the best deals.

One might think the added security a VPN connection provides would always be a good thing. There are at least two exceptions. Here are 2 situations in which you might want to disable your VPN connection.

  1. When your actual location is relevant to your online activity, e.g. when searching for something (perhaps a local restaurant) in your neighborhood, or making use of an online streaming service that adheres to geographic licensing limitations. VPN services generally provide a number of international locations you can assume by connecting through different server addresses, but these may not be located accurately enough for your purposes.
  2. When your online activities are not security-sensitive, but your mobile device’s battery usage is a concern. Using a VPN app adds a slight computational load to all of your internet communications — some say 5 to 15%. If you’re on a mobile device with a nearly empty battery AND the online task you are performing does not require full security or anonymity, you might do well to turn the VPN off and save a little juice.

How to install a VPN

The procedure to install a VPN service depends on the type of device, in particular, as well as hardware and operating system. Generally, you go through a few simple steps to install a VPN is:

  • Choose your preferred service.
  • Sign up and pay for a plan.
  • Download and install the platform-specific VPN client application.
  • Log in to the application and configure it for your needs and preferences.
  • Get to work!

Detailed instructions and options for installation and configuration vary widely depending on platforms and service providers. Please refer to your service provider’s documentation for specific detail.

Our VPN recommendations

When choosing a VPN service you should consider several factors:

  • Supported platforms. You probably need VPN service on your computer (PC, Mac, Linux); your smartphone and/or tablet (iOS, Android); and maybe other devices.
  • Number of connections. Counting family computers, smartphones, and other devices, you might need more connections than you think. We recommend five at minimum.
  • VPN service location. You should avoid doing business with companies headquartered in countries with unfriendly political policies, disclosure laws, or censorship.
  • VPN server locations and quantity. If you have specific geography-shifting needs you should ensure the service meets your needs. And the more servers, generally, the better.
  • Trustworthiness? Check the online reviews, make sure the service is log-free, and be cautious about too-good-to-be-true pricing.
  • Cost. Quality VPN services typically cost between $6 and $10 per month in the USA, and slightly more or less in other geographies. Annual contracts are generally available for a discount.
  • Other considerations include data limitations, connection type limitations, performance, enhanced security options, ease of use, and customer support.

The issue of trustworthiness is particularly important. When you use a VPN you are effectively hiding your communications from everyone—except the VPN service provider. A nefarious service provider can sell your information, or worse, try to exploit weak encryption on servers or try to trick you into accepting certificate errors to get access to your traffic. Identifying malicious service providers is as easy as searching for some reviews of their service. If the reviews are less than pristine, stay away — you have lots of other choices.

Among the many personal VPN services available, we recommend:

  • ExpressVPN (strong privacy, lots of locations, advanced technical options, $13/mo or $100 annually).
  • NordVPN (strong privacy, advanced technical options, $12/mo or $110 annually).
  • TunnelBear (free, but data limits apply; unlimited upgrade available for a fee).

Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine, committed to showing you the best result for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Sign up today and try Neeva for yourself: neeva.com/signup.