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Episode 24: What a VPN Actually Provides

Episode 24: What a VPN Actually Provides


The Background

The title for today’s episode comes from a question submitted by one of my subscribers. I think the topic of VPNs is an important one for many reasons, but, as with most topics in technology, it’s sometimes difficult to understand. Additionally, the marketplace is full of salespeople and marketers, so the general public is often exposed to exaggerations and, sometimes, even lies on this topic. As always, let’s cut through the bullshit using common language and maybe a little bit of fun to help the topic of VPNs be more easy to understand. Sound good? Then lets jump right in…

The Definition

First, if you’re wondering what a VPN even is, let me explain… It’s an acronym that stands for Violins Playing Nat King Cole. I’m joking, of course: I’m a kidder. In reality, VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network”. But what the hell does that even mean?!? Well, let’s break it down, and slightly out of order, since that’s easier, methinks:

Network: Think of a network as a “connection” between at least two computers. In this case, a connection is made over the public internet between your computer (or smartphone or tablet) and a second computer located in a different building, city, state, or country. That’s it, really! Once two computers have connected to one another, a network is formed!

Private: Now that you’ve established a network, you might be asking, “Wait… Does everyone have access to this network?!?” The answer is no because a VPN is only made available to certain individuals. Here’s an example: I used to work at Nike as a Systems Administrator (a fancy title for a dweeb who manages hundreds or thousands of computers). When I wasn’t physically on Nike’s campus, I could still log into Nike’s network in order to do my job. But only those who worked at Nike had this access, not the general public. Nike’s network was private, not public.

Virtual: I believe it helps to think of the word “virtual” as a modifier to the word “private”. I’ll explain. When I was at home or at a coffee shop and needed to log into the Nike network, I would use my own computer and the public Internet. Therefore, my connection (or network) to Nike’s servers wasn’t a private, but rather a virtual private network. My privacy to gain access to Nike’s network was accomplished via software over the public Internet and not some special, secondary Internet.

So there it is, explained: a virtual private network.

Luckily, it turns out that there aren’t many technical differences between the kind of VPN I used while working at Nike and the types of commercial VPN services now available to any consumer. But that doesn’t stop vendors and marketers from lying about the technology, does it?

No, it doesn’t.

The Exaggerations, Lies, & Convenient Omissions

If you’ve ever seen an ad for a VPN service or read about people who advocate for using a VPN service (including yours truly!), then you might have gone online and done a bit of research for yourself. If so, then you’ve probably been exposed to any number of exaggerations, lies, and convenient omissions from the people who are selling you on this technology. These lies include:

Using a VPN allows you to do whatever you want online - legal or illegal - without reprisal.

This isn’t true. At all. Let’s say that you’re using a VPN and you decide to post harmful, hateful, or illegal messages on any social media platform or website. Once you’ve posted, your accounts on those platforms may be terminated because you’re most likely violating the terms of service of those sites. If a threat you pose in your posts is credible, representatives from those websites can — and often do — contact law enforcement and provide them with whatever digital files and evidence are available to them that you’ve left behind. Using a VPN doesn’t, magically, exempt you from local, state, and federal laws that all other citizens follow. Here’s a fun story about a criminal who thought he could hide his disgusting and awful online behavior behind the two VPN providers he employed. He failed. And he’s now in jail for 17 years. #SorryNotSorry

Some VPN services don’t keep logs (or digital files) that can trace back to individual users.

This is also untrue, but there’s an important reason why: ALL computers make and keep logs by default. Commercial VPNs run on computers and computers, by default, keep logs, so this isn’t a “bad thing” or something to fear. Rather, the important question to ask any potential VPN service is: “Which logs do you keep and for how long?” Common logs can track how often you log in to your VPN provider and how much data you’ve downloaded once you’ve logged in. That’s not usually damaging information and can be super helpful for the company providing you the service. But some VPN providers also log your IP address (kind of like a digital ID number) which you’ll want to avoid. Some may also decide to implement logging to help identify problem users. Here’s a fun story about a “no log” VPN provider that suddenly began keeping logs to help identify a hacker and then force that person to stop misbehaving on its systems.

Your username/password can be stolen on the Internet if you’re not using a VPN.

Well, yes, technically, but... It would be difficult to do and requires many unknowns to be in place to be successful. By comparison, it’s much MUCH easier to steal someone’s passwords via email which is why that practice is far more common.

You are anonymous on the Internet when using a VPN.

Uh, no. If you bank online, use social media online, use any of Google’s services online or if you surf the web using the most common web browsers, then you’re not anonymous. At all.

VPN providers have servers all over the world.

Only partly true. Most of the companies I recommend to people do, in fact, have servers (fancy, fast computers) in scores of countries. And, certainly, most consumer VPN companies advertise this fact as a marketing factor to convince you to purchase their service. But… they’re all not exactly truthful about the details. Servers are fast computers. Some companies claim to offer physical servers in locations where they’re not actually located. Others claim to offer physical servers when, instead, they offer virtual computers. There’s nothing wrong at all with using virtual servers — they’re fast, cheap, and easy to backup or scale if a company grows. However, companies should be 100% transparent about what they’re offering you. It’s a lie to say you’ve got a server in Saudi Arabia when what you’re really offering is a virtual server located in Europe.

I am an affiliate (or reseller) for several high-quality VPN services, and I can tell you that spreading lies like these does the public a great disservice. Therefore, now that you know some of the exaggerations and lies, let’s examine what a VPN service can actually provide you.

So What Does a VPN Service ACTUALLY Offer Consumers?

Glad you asked. Reputable VPN services can and do offer solid protections for consumers who wish to take advantage of these, worthy benefits...

Benefit #1: Protecting your ISP from viewing the websites where you surf.

Right now, your Internet Service Provider (or ISP) has the ability - if they wish - to track what you do online. That includes documenting every website you visit while connected to the Internet via their network. Yeh, I know: it’s totally creepy. That information can be sold for advertising purposes and it can also be provided to the authorities (courts, cops, and more) for certain legal purposes. Who’s interested in giving away their browsing habits to ANY third party?!? Not me, buster.

So, if you’d like to hide your browsing habits from companies like Comcast, Cox, and AT&T in the US; Orange S.A., Telefonica, and Sky in the EU; and Vodaphone or Airtel in India… then, yes: browsing while using a VPN will prevent your ISP from having access to this information. Instead, your ISP will only be able to see that you’re logging in to a VPN but… nothing else. Pretty nice, feature, I’d say. And here’s what it looks like:

Just remember, even though your ISP won’t be able to see your browsing information, your VPN service most certainly WILL be able to see that data. Therefore, it’s important to choose a VPN service that protects your safety, security, and privacy. I covered this information in Episode #7, so have a look now to learn how best to choose a solid VPN service.

Benefit #2: Bypassing your ISP’s efforts to prioritize or restrict certain content.

In some countries, certain ISPs prioritize or restrict certain websites or content. T-Mobile, for example, slows down Internet speeds for users who wish to stream video. In the US, Comcast decided to intentionally slow down Netflix for all of its users, a super shitty move. Netflix bowed to the pressure and paid Comcast extra money to end the practice.

However, if you use a VPN service, then guess what? You’ve got benefit #1 working for you which means your ISP can’t see which websites you’re visiting online. And if they can’t see which websites you’re browsing, then they can’t decrease your speed because you’ve chosen to visit a particular website that they don’t like.

Thanks, VPN!

Benefit #3: Bypassing the blocks that your ISP or country uses to prevent access to certain websites.

Let’s say you live in a repressive country that doesn’t allow access to things like, I don’t know: a free press, women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, or even pornography. Using a VPN can, in some cases, allow you to bypass those restrictions and surf more comfortably to any website that you might choose for yourself as a free-thinking human. FREEEEEEEEDOM!!!!!

And, while it’s true that some countries (cough, cough, CHINA) can simply block access to known VPN providers, VPN providers add new servers with new IP addresses all the time making this cat-and-mouse game forever playable.

Benefit #4: You can suddenly stream data from another country’s video-on-demand service.

The BBC in the UK offers a ton of really cool programming that’s 100% free. So does the CBC in Canada. And if I were online in the UK or in Canada, I’d be able to stream that content freely and easily. However, because I’m geographically located in America, I can’t stream video from those websites to my computer. Ditto if I’m a paying Netflix customer in the US but am traveling abroad and want access to Netflix’s sweet, sweet American show library. So, yeh, that’s a bummer.

However, if my VPN service offers me the ability to connect to one of their servers in, say, London or Toronto, well… guess what?! I’m now virtually in the UK or Canada and all of that free content is now available to me. Ditto if I’m traveling abroad in the EU and want access to my paid Netflix account back in the states: I can just connect via my VPN service to a US server and presto… I’ve suddenly gained access to the shows I’m already paying to view.

It’s worth noting: some video-on-demand services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and others block VPN services from accomplishing this. But, again, VPN servers are being added all the time, so just make sure you pick a VPN that offers a free trial. That way, you can test the access you need before you commit to a yearly purchase.

The Summary

Here’s a great video from Tom Scott (a lovely and funny YouTube personality) who digs into this topic with fun, clarity, and a wee bit of sass. Enjoy:

And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thank you again, for reading (or listening!) and for being a subscriber. Please: let me know your thoughts & questions in the comments section. As of today, all subscribers can read & leave comments, not just my paid subscribers.

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As always… surf safe.

Click here for my guide on how to choose a privacy-focused VPN.
If you’re looking to set up a VERY secure iPhone, click here.
To learn how to remove your personal data from the web, click here.
For a super cool way to NOT give your personal email address to everyone, click here.
Click here for a crash course on how to keep your devices updated.

Tech Talk - The Technology Newsletter for Everyone
Tech Talk - The Tech Podcast... for Everyone
TechTalk is a podcast that's meant to help absolute beginners and non-technical people learn about technology in a fun and informative way. We don't talk over your head! Instead, we use everyday language to make sure that you understand all of the important subjects and challenges that we discuss. Tech is important: let's learn about it together in a fun and funny way.