What is a VPN?

You might know about a VPN if you work from home. Even then you might think it’s some sort of magic hokum thingie that you really don’t understand. Relax, like most of the internet it works whether or not you understand it. But come on, this is The Solid Signal Blog. Did you think we would stop there? Absolutely not.

A Virtual Private Network is one of the more useful things on the internet, certainly if you’re in business, but also if you’re not, depending on your tolerance for the shadier side of things. Know now that we don’t necessarily approve of the shadier uses of VPNs, but there’s no denying that they are there. The purpose of a VPN is simply to give you secure access to a separate location (like work.)

It’s actually kind of neat the way it works. First you need to be aware that the information you send over the internet isn’t secure. It’s far from it. Most information you send, and a lot of information you didn’t realize you were sending, is sent out in a completely clear way. If someone wanted to, they could intercept your emails, your facebook, even your passwords. It’s just the sheer amount of traffic on the internet that keeps your information private. There’s so much data out there that it’s just a big pain to sift through. Still, there are some kinds of traffic that need more security. Even the smallest business keeps financial information on work computers, and you wouldn’t want that information going out into the world. That’s where a VPN comes in.

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. In other words it is a network between two points that acts like it’s private, but it doesn’t use private wires. It exists on the public internet but it is almost impossible to break into. The information is protected through one of several methods, and at least for the time being, computers are not powerful enough to decode the level of protection that’s being used. It would take longer to break into a VPN than most people actually spend on one.

Most VPNs use a technology called “tunneling.” This lets regular internet traffic carry a completely different kind of traffic. In a VPN, you’re using some sort of encryption, something the internet does not normally support. There are several industry-standard forms of encryption where the two computers pass very long, anonymous strings of information to each other in a tiny fraction of time, almost impossible to intercept. Once the private network is established, the two computers start talking to each other in their private “tunnel” and in some cases the internet at large can’t even see that the communication is happening.

This is perfect for telecommuters, who can share network resources like servers and printers from anywhere. The technology is built into PCs, phones and tablets and it’s extremely secure. IT managers breathe easily knowing that there’s no loss of security just because someone outside the network has a way in. It’s also perfect for streaming video; that’s right, Netflix is a sort of VPN, although it isn’t really referred to as one. Still, that’s how it behaves: there’s a stream of data that’s privately sent between two points.

There’s another, less savory use for a VPN, though: watching stuff you can’t normally watch or trying to hide your tracks. See, when you connect to a VPN, it looks to all the world like you’re physically in a different location. Depending on how you set things up, all your internet traffic can go through a router in a different location without any evidence that you’re not right there next to it. This is useful if you’re trying to get past some sort of “geoblock,” in other words if you’re trying to access information that can’t be accessed from your location. TV networks use geoblocks to make sure that people in other countries without legal access to their programs can’t see them… but if you’re in the US and want to watch Colombian TV… all it takes is someone to set up a VPN connection for you in Colombia, as well as a web site there that streams local TV. (Hey, I don’t condone it.)

That’s not the only mischief you can do with a VPN. If you’re the sort of person who wants to do evil things on the internet, it’s probably good to hide your true location, and a VPN can do just that. It’s possible to trace your internet traffic, but first the good guys have to know that you’re not they thought you were, and that gives you time to find and set up another VPN. (Like I said, I don’t condone it.)

So, as with everything else, there are two sides. A VPN is a powerful tool for business, but it’s a powerful tool for the bad guys too. How will you use yours?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.