What is a VPN?
To put things in simple words, VPN (or Virtual Private Network) is essentially a technology which creates a secure and encrypted connection over a public network such as the Internet by building a private network on top of it that only its owner can use. A VPN Client (you) uses special TCP/IP-based protocols (so-called tunneling protocols) to make a virtual call to a virtual port on a remote access VPN server. The call is authenticated and the data is transferred.
A bit of tech talk
In order to emulate a secure point-to-point or site-to-site link, data is encapsulated (hidden by inclusion of one data structure within another structure so that the first data structure remains hidden) with the header. The header contains routing information that enables the data package to cross the shared or public network and reach its destination point. The data which is sent is encrypted and sent across the Internet. The infrastructure of the public network and its possible barriers are in this case immaterial as the information is sent through a dedicated private link.
There are several VPN encryption protocols that are used to secure the data in the public network infrastructure. They differ slightly in the way of keeping the data secure.
IP security (IPSec) uses either transport mode or tunneling to encrypt the data in a VPN. Transport mode encrypts only the message within the data packet (known as payload) while tunneling encrypts the entire data packet. It is used as a security layer for other protocols.
Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) use cryptography to secure traffic over the Internet. Both protocols use a "handshake" technique of authentication that involves a negotiation of network parameters between the client and server. An authentication process involving certificates is used to initiate a connection. Certificates are cryptographic keys that are stored on both the server and client side.
Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is another tunneling protocol used to connect a remote client to a private server over the public network. PPTP is one of the most commonly used VPN protocols because of its simple configuration and maintenance. It is also included with the Windows operating system.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) is a protocol used to tunnel data communications traffic between two sites over the Internet. L2TP is often used together with IPSec (as a security layer) to secure the transfer of L2TP data packets over the Internet. Unlike PPTP, a VPN implementation using L2TP/IPSec requires a shared key or the use of certificates.
Why bother to use a VPN?
On a simple, everyday use of the Internet, a VPN gives you, among other things, the following advantages:
- Secures your publicly visible connections through tunneling protocols
- Secures your data while using public Wi-Fi spots where you are most susceptible to online attacks such as MiM (man in the middle) hack attacks
- Protects you from identity thefts
- Blocks incoming malicious traffic that could possibly reach and damage your devices
- Protects all your sensitive data (email messages, chats, forms, documents or downloads) with strong encryption algorithms against others or, e.g., illegal government surveillance and data retention
- Secures your online shopping and banking transactions
- Protects you from phishing attacks, link baits, targeted advertising and other malicious activities
- Effectively prevents Transparent Proxies, DNS Hijacking or ISP sniffing or eavesdropping as your Internet Service Provider does not know the final destination of your traffic
- Masks you IP address giving you ultimate anonymity, privacy and Internet freedom
- Helps avoid government ban and Internet censorship issues
- Gives you remote access to websites and applications that may be unavailable due to the change of your location (e.g. while traveling)
- Unlocks geo-restricted and blocked websites giving you access to the content which is otherwise unavailable in your physical location
Is using a VPN legal?
The simplest answer to this question is YES. Using VPNs is legal in most jurisdictions. Even Windows has VPN capabilities installed and numerous companies like Cisco or Fortinet provide software for VPN systems. Many enterprises actually insist on using VPNs while working with their agents or clients thus protecting their sensitive data or trade secrets.
However, you must be aware of the fact that, much as the use of a VPN itself is legal, some activities may not be. Obviously, if someone uses IP masking to cover criminal activities, they are obviously heading straight for the trouble. You also must be aware of the fact that the world today is very sensitive to terrorism issues and many governments are alert to employing any clandestine measures that could potentially be used to hide illicit acts. Countries such as France or UK forced VPN providers to keep logs of users’ activities. But even such countries as China or Saudi Arabia which are famous for sophisticated censorship procedures do not have any official law making VPNs illegal. They may ban certain VPN services or providers but the very use of the VPN technology is not illegal.
Is using a VPN 100% safe?
Basically, yes. However, you must be aware of the fact that VPN actually encrypts traffic from your device to the VPN provider. Therefore, if you enter your logging credentials (e.g. username and password to your email account), the browser sends encrypted information to the VPN provider. The VPN provider then decrypts the communication and sends the credentials to the email site unencrypted. The site receives your unencrypted login and password, generates a session cookie (also unencrypted) and sends it back to the VPN provider. The provider receives the unencrypted cookie, encrypts it and sends it back to you.
As you can see, there may be certain “holes” that VPN does not cover entirely. You must be particularly careful when accessing non-https enabled sites. Stay away from the sites that do not offer SSL. In such a case, basically anyone (with enough knowledge and tools) on the Internet between your VPN and the non-https site may intercept your data.
Theoretically, the VPN provider itself may have access to the data that flows through their servers. Also third party companies with access to ISP backbones may, theoretically, track down your activities. Not to mention all sorts of special governmental agencies or law enforcement teams with major privileges.
However, we are moving into the territory that no average Internet user enters. Using a well-established and trustful VPN company should do the job. We suggest Smart DNS Proxy – we provide a comprehensive VPN/Smart DNS solution.
VPN vs. geo-restrictions
Internet freedom is a notion that has been kicking around the web users practically since the beginning of the public network creation. But how can you actually feel free to browse the net when you get the message that this content or product is not available in your location? So if I go to “their” location, I will be able to watch it? Or buy it? After all, wasn’t the Internet made to be able to “go” wherever I want? What is the point of geo-restrictions then?
VPN vs. Smart DNS
Geolocation restriction can be bypassed in several ways. One of the solutions is Smart DNS which re-routes traffic required for determining your geographical location. It functions more like a “trick” by changing your DNS so the sites that you are browsing “think” you are actually eligible to access them. The traffic does not need to travel through distant server locations thus giving you better user speed. The downside is that the traffic is not encrypted and your IP is not hidden.
A VPN service aims at switching the user’s IP and encrypting your traffic. This gives you complete anonymity on the web. Potential disadvantage of slower speeds as a result of heavy VPN encryption are definitely outweighed by the feeling of security and privacy. VPN actively spoofs your IP and your location and online IP will be changed for all sites and services that you access online.
In terms of the user speed, in the case of heavy network congestion between your device and the content server, even the lower bandwidth overhead of Smart DNS is not going to enhance your throughput too much. And the sites that are usually accessed by means of geolocation avoiding tools are the ones that are so popular that traffic congestion is virtually unavoidable. Additionally, ISPs happen to throttle certain traffic so the difference in speed between Smart DNS and VPN will be practically unnoticeable.
BACK TO NEWS
All being said, VPNs seem to have a lot of advantages and benefits with security and privacy being the most prominent ones. Although a Smart DNS solution is generally slightly less expensive than the VPN service, it lacks protection when carrying out your online activities. VPN is also a bit more difficult to set up and getting it to work with some devices may require some workaround. However, if privacy and security is your main concern, it is worth the trouble.
If you choose a reliable VPN provider such as Smart DNS Proxy, you may be sure that your online safety will be taken care of and you will be able to access your favorite websites. VPN providers also often offer “hybrid” SmartVPN options which have capabilities of both solutions both ensuring your traffic encryption and giving you access to all Smart DNS-supported services. Making a virtue of necessity, you can combine online security and privacy with loads of entertainment that you can access with a good VPN service provider.