The letters VPN pop up in a lot of places in today’s digital world, even in our domain name VPNaccounts.com You’ve seen them on your home computer, your laptop, your smartphone, and even the Kindle. If you happen to be one of those people who haven’t explored using a VPN on your Internet-ready devices, you might still have some questions about what a VPN connection really is.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. You’ll never call it that, most likely, so we wouldn’t worry too much about remembering the exact words. VPN is all you need to know because that is how it is identified on your devices. If you happen to be using Windows, your Network and Sharing Center will have a designation for VPN and it is similar on a MAC. The reason a VPN option pops up in your network windows is because all current devices come with a VPN client pre-installed.
A VPN could be described as a network within a network. We’re purposely trying to keep this article free from a lot of technical jargon, so let’s break it down this way. Your ISP provides your basic access to the Internet. A network is then established which facilitates your access. A network can be the connection you have at home, which is likely secured and only accessible to your family members, or it can be the connection at a fast food restaurant, which is likely unsecured. That means that anyone can hop on the network and use the Internet. Whenever you use these networks, your device is identified by means of an IP address. Think of an IP address as your digital postal address. Data across the internet is sent in packets, just like mail. So, when you download something or even view a website, data transmission is occurring between your computer and the host server.
Sometimes, it is advantageous to conceal your actual IP address. The reasons for doing this are numerous. Maybe you want to keep the websites you visit private. Maybe you want to eliminate the possibility of marketing companies spying on your browsing preferences. To continue our postal analogy, a VPN is something like a postal box. You pay a fee to use the box and your mail is sent to the box address instead of to your physical address. The sender only sees the address of the postal box. That’s a lot like what a VPN does. When you connect to it, your data transmission is routed or tunneled through the VPN server which has its own IP address. For the party sending the data, the end point is the VPN tunnel. The VPN then completes the data transfer by sending the information to your machine.
VPN’s use something known as encryption to keep your data safe and make it invisible to prying eyes. Encryption is just a fancy word for a complicated cipher that turns your data into indecipherable code. To understand encryption and tunneling, think of driving along and talking on your smartphone. Many smartphone apps lock in on your physical location via a communication with your device. Up ahead there is a long tunnel. When you enter that tunnel, you briefly lose the service on your phone. For those brief few moments while you are in the tunnel, you become invisible to those apps which track your physical location. Once you exit the tunnel and your service comes back, GPS works again and your location is again revealed. If someone were to try and pinpoint your movements during that period of time they would find that they lost you going into the tunnel and picked you up again coming out. Now, here’s the really cool part. What happened while you were in that tunnel is anybody’s guess. A VPN is very much like that. Once you connect to a VPN, after connecting to the Internet through your ISP, you enter the VPN tunnel. As long as you are in that tunnel, tracking your activities becomes virtually impossible. Make sense? We thought so.
Some things a VPN is not
Before we wrap up this basic analogy about VPN’s, it makes sense to remind you of some things a VPN is not.
- A VPN connection is not a stand-alone Internet connection. You connect to your VPN once your regular connection has been established.
- A VPN account is not software. A client is required to use VPN, but that is already installed on your device. You don’t have to download anything new to use a VPN.
- A VPN is not an antivirus program. A lot of people seem to think this. A VPN can increase the overall security of your system, however, by using encryption to protect your data.