What Is a VPN: Definition, History, Benefits
These days VPNs, also known as Virtual Private Networks, are all the rage, but not for the reasons they were initially created. They were conceived as a way to connect business networks together securely over the internet or allow users to access a business network from home, a very straightforward use really.
The point of a VPN is to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. Security or privacy might not seem the primary use for VPNs now, but in the wake of everpresent tracking and aggressive marketing strategies the need for additional protection grows — which is where AdGuard comes into the picture.
Download AdGuard VPN
We have apps for all popular operating systems — Windows and Mac, iOS and Android. And if you prefer to use a browser extension, install AdGuard VPN for Chrome, Firefox or Edge.
Why use a VPN
Don’t let anyone determine your location and get information about your computer, forget about scammers and geo-targeted ads.
Shield your data
from being siphoned through shady Wi-Fi hotspots thanks to data encryption and a masked IP.
Watch your favorite shows while on vacation in another country.
Download (legal) files and avoid being logged while at it. Even when your ISP heavily dislikes BitTorrent.
Stay under the radar
Lessen the onslaught of ads, at least geographically-targeted ones (an ad blocker helps too).
Change your IP address
, you can hide your real IP and stay anonymous, encrypt traffic, and protect your data.
History of VPN Services
Now that you know what a VPN is, let’s dive into the history of the virtual private network concept.
Surprisingly, VPN appeared even before the advent of the Internet and was closely related to telephony: in its early days it was used to connect corporate telephone networks (clusters of Closed User Groups) located in different geographic points into a single network.
Initially, VPN technologies were used only by large organizations and corporations and allowed employees to communicate and exchange confidential data securely. Today, however, after a bit of evolution, VPN is widely used by people who want to surf the Internet privately, hide their IP or get access to websites unavailable in their region.
How Does a VPN Work?
What Is VPN Encryption?
VPN encryption implies setting up a secure tunnel to encrypt data when it travels from point A (your device) to point B (the site you want to access). The process is arranged like this. Suppose you are trying to access YouTube through a VPN and enable AdGuard VPN on your computer:
You establish a secure connection between your computer and a VPN server that is provided by the VPN provider company (in this case, AdGuard);
Now your Internet traffic is encrypted and routed through the established VPN connection to the VPN server.
The VPN server partially decrypts your information, such as those at a transport level and those related to the VPN. Protocol-level encryption like TLS encryption remains and keeps your data (password, cookies, payment credentials, viewed videos, etc.) unattainable to the VPN provider;
The VPN server establishes a connection with a remote YouTube server and sends your browser or YouTube app's request;
The remote YouTube server responds, sends data to the VPN server;
The VPN server receives TLS-encrypted traffic, adds one more layer of encryption and sends it to your device;
Your device receives encrypted traffic, decrypts it, and forwards it to your browser or YouTube application that initiated the request.
So, what is a modern meaning of VPN and what is it used for by private Internet users? Putting aside its corporate applications, where it’s used more or less for the same purpose as earlier, it’s also a technology that allows you to hide your online identity by routing your traffic via a remote VPN server, with a different IP address, location, and other associated data, and adds an additional level of protection.
Suppose the data traffic is observed by a third party on the last mile, between the client and the VPN server. It may be an ISP collecting data for advertising purposes, some government censorship service or even a hacker. In all cases, VPN makes sure traffic is encrypted and useless to the observer as they aren’t able to extract any useful information out of the encrypted data stream. Remember, though, that your online activity can still be tracked via cookies and device fingerprinting, even if your IP address is hidden.
VPN Protocols and Their Types
A VPN protocol is a set of rules that consists of encryption methods and authentication and transmission protocols. It determines how the connection between you and the VPN server is set up. The protocols vary in speed, security, supported networks, and platforms. Let's examine the most popular VPN protocols to see their strengths and weaknesses.
Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) is a secure network protocol that authenticates and encrypts the data, as well as establishes mutual authentication between two agents: host-to-host, security gateways (network-to-network), or a host and a getaway. The protocol delivers proper security of the Internet traffic due to the following features:
Confidentiality: Only the sender and the receiver can access the unencrypted data.
Integrity: Packets with the data have specific hash values. Therefore, both the sender and the receiver will be able to realize if the data is altered by calculating the hash value.
Anti-reply: IPsec uses sequence data in order not to transmit any duplicate packets, which means that even if hackers capture the packet, they won't be able to send it again.
Authentication: Since both agents are authenticated, they can be sure that the data transferred to the intended party.
OpenVPN (TCP and UDP)
One of the most popular free protocols is OpenVPN. By default it uses UDP transport: all network packets are encapsulated into UDP datagrams and then sent to a VPN server. However, UDP traffic in public networks is often restricted. As a resort, TCP encapsulation can be used (which requires some additional configuration on server side). Many users point out the flexibility of its settings and compatibility with different platforms, but using this protocol requires certain technical knowledge.
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol is one of the first tools of this kind (released for Windows95). It’s obsolete now and isn’t widely used anymore as it has some protocol vulnerabilities and is easy to hack.
Being an extension of the PPTP, Layer Two Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) is used to either support VPNs or as part of the delivery of services by Internet Service Providers. The protocol encrypts its control messages only but doesn't encrypt the content. Therefore, it sets up a tunnel for Layer 2 that can be further passed over a Layer 3 encryption protocol (for example, IPsec).
The lightweight codebase of the Jason A. Donenfeld protocol provides good connection speed. It is very easy to use and boasts high security thanks to its clean design and use of modern elliptic curve cryptography. But there are also disadvantages: TCP isn’t supported, which means that the protocol may not work on networks where UDP traffic is blocked. What is more, unlike IPsec, it requires you to download specific applications to use the protocol as it’s not natively supported by consumer operating systems.
The Secure Socket Tunneling protocol is a brainchild of Microsoft and works only on Windows-based devices. If you are using Microsoft Azure, you need Windows 8.1 (or up) that supports TLS 1.2 and has SSTP. Being a proprietary TLS-based protocol, SSTP can penetrate firewalls, the majority of which open TCP port 443 outbound. SSTP provides a mechanism for transmitting PPP traffic over an SSL/TLS channel with protection at the transport layer.
The main goal of the protocols above (and respective software) is deploying private networks within organizations. They are not focused on circumvention of firewalls or port blocking, or on hiding the fact that VPN is being used by a client. Besides that, their use within a commercial software may be limited due to license restrictions.
That’s the reason why major public VPN service providers develop their own VPN protocols. This category includes LightWay created by ExpressVPN, Hydra by Hotspot Shield and our proprietary AdGuard VPN protocol.
In particular, AdGuard VPN protocol was designed to be fast, energy-efficient and indistinguishable from regular HTTPS traffic.
Why Do You Need a VPN?
In the era of widespread digitalization, your online activity is under surveillance. Think of an IP address as your home address, which is used to deliver items by post. The same is true for IP, which specifies where Internet traffic should be sent. It can also be used to track where a specific query or access was granted from. And therefore, the government, hackers, or anyone else in between can find you. Besides, some websites may block specific locations from accessing their data.
What is a VPN’s role here? A virtual private network allows you to avoid exposing your real IP address on the Internet by proxying all your data through a secure connection to a dedicated server.
What are VPNs used for? Here are a few reasons:
To stay safe on public Wi-Fi. Using public Wi-Fi, especially passwordless, puts you in a vulnerable position. By connecting your device to the network somewhere in a museum or in a cafe, your traffic becomes an easy target for data miners. VPN tunneling fixes that issue by encrypting all traffic and DNS requests.
To hide your online activity from an Internet Service Provider (ISP). An ISP can track what websites you use and for how long. All your visits and clicks are then stored and can be sold to advertising companies or forwarded to intelligence services. With a VPN, your browsing history is hidden from an ISP, meaning it can’t be handed over to third parties.
To enjoy reasonable pricing. Some online retailers set up prices depending on the location: for example, it can be $20 for a shirt in India and $30 for the same shirt in the USA. By visiting the site with an IP from a different country, you won’t have to overpay.
To watch your favorite TV shows even while on vacation in another country. Since your IP shows where the traffic is coming from, site admins can easily block access for specific countries. A VPN allows you to pretend that your device operates in your usual region and to get access to content you're used to.
Advantages and Disadvantages of VPNs
|Your personal information is encrypted, allowing you to bypass any threats and use the Internet safely.
||Since a VPN server may be far away from a user, network latency may significantly increase and, as a result, slow down the connection speed.
|A lot of VPN providers offer you to try VPN for free or as a demo with some restrictions.
||If a free VPN version isn't enough to meet your needs, you have to buy a subscription. For example, this may be relevant if you plan to use VPN constantly, plan to transfer massive amounts of data, need high Internet speed or intend to use a specific location that is not available in the free plan.
|VPNs are easy to use; you only need to download an app, sign up, choose a preferred location and switch tunneling on
||Some VPN providers are not transparent enough in their privacy policies. As a result, if you use a non-reputable / no-name VPN service, your web surfing data may leak to or be shared with third parties.
|You get access to content that is unavailable because of local restrictions.
|Your data is protected from surveillance by ISPs and governments.
Types of VPN
Here are the main types of VPNs that you should know about.
What is a VPN for commercial purposes? It is a service that enables you to establish a secure connection to a remote server and to route your Internet traffic through it. Commercial VPNs allow you to hide your personal IP address and conceal your real location.
This is an internal network that connects different parts of your organization. By using a VPN for an internal network, you can safely connect to resources in your office from anywhere in the world without risking your data being stolen or compromised in transit. A VPN also lowers the possibility of third-party intrusions in a corporate network.
Why use a VPN?
How to Choose a VPN
These days, there are numerous VPN providers, which makes it harder to find the right one. Here are the main criteria to pay attention to:
The number of servers and locations. The more, the better. The Internet signal spreads at terminal velocity, so the closer the VPN server is to you, the less noticeable the effect of tunneling on your Internet speed. Also, you may need a VPN server in a specific country or location, and it's important that your VPN provider can offer you one.
Shared or private IP addresses. On the one hand, shared IP makes it impossible to track you by IP. But on the other hand, shared IP is used by a large number of users at the same time and is more likely to be included in lists of anonymous IP addresses or to be banned by government firewalls.
Logging (or no-logging) policy. Providers who operate with no logs don’t record your online activity. For example, AdGuard applies a zero-logging policy to ensure the disguise of your data.
Multi-device support. If you purchase a subscription, you want to use it for several devices, both desktop and mobile. This is possible if your provider has mobile apps in the App Store and Google Play.
Free trial. You can’t be sure that the connection is reliable, the speed is good enough, and the security is strong until you test the solution yourself. Therefore, try it before you buy it. Providers should offer a trial period or, for instance, AdGuard VPN offers free 3 GB of traffic renewed monthly.
How to Install VPN on Your Computer
Installing a VPN is straightforward. The process should be more or less the same regardless of the device you use. Let’s look at an example of how to install Adguard VPN on Mac:
2) Download the DMG file to your computer.
3) Run the file, and you will see “Install AdGuard VPN”. Double click on the icon.
4) Click “Continue and Install” and wait for the installation to be done.
5) Once you see the message that the installation is successfully completed, you can use your VPN.
If you are installing a VPN on a Windows device
, you are likely to follow the same steps: download the file, run it, and wait for the installation. If you are installing a VPN on a mobile device, simply download the VPN application from App Store or Google Play. You can also install AdGuard VPN browser extension.
A virtual private network is not the only solution to make it look like your device has a different IP address. Here are other alternatives you can count on:
VPN vs. Tor
Both a VPN and Tor use encryption to prevent third parties from deciphering your data.
Tor is a Firefox-based browser whose open-source code implements an anonymous Internet connection. It splits your data into encrypted pieces and sends them through a random sequence of servers. Thanks to a decentralized approach, an exit node or relay can read unencrypted data but can't determine its source.
A VPN usually applies a more centralized approach. After the connection is established, all your traffic is sent to a remote server belonging to the VPN provider. Another IP allows you to hide your online identity and Internet activity, as well as bypass regional blockings and censorship.
Considering Tor’s specifics, it’s hardly a tool for everyday usage. Traffic fragmentation, together with multiple network hops, dramatically reduces the Internet speed and responsiveness. That’s why Tor is usually used when one needs untraceability, for example, to access darknet.
VPN vs. Proxy
The main difference between a proxy and a VPN is that proxy servers work at the application level, and VPNs – at the transport level. These technologies operate in completely different ways.
A proxy server handles a specific protocol, usually HTTP or HTTPS. A proxy can be used only if an application supports this option. Typically, it's browsers or torrent clients. VPNs, on the opposite, can handle all kinds of protocols and traffic transparently for the apps generating that traffic. For instance, SMTP, SSH, and other app-specific network protocols, including proprietary ones. While a user has to set up a proxy manually within an app (enter a login, password, etc., in the settings), a VPN is set up in a device-wide manner. Speaking of modern VPNs, that means installing an app onto the device and enabling tunneling in a couple of clicks/taps.
Besides, proxies don't typically provide extra encryption between a client and a server. Therefore, they aren't used to ensure anonymity and an extra level of security but rather to change an IP address or a client's geo, for instance, for streaming or torrenting.
There is an exception, though. Secure Web Proxy, a relatively modern feature in browsers, introduces an encrypted connection between a client and a proxy server and can be used for hiding traffic from third parties as well. It requires support from a proxy, and all other drawbacks of proxies are still on the table: it still works at an application level and requires some manual setup inside an app. This technology is predominantly used as a part of browser VPN extensions.
Although a proxy can satisfy some of your needs, for instance, hide your IP address or real location, it still doesn't deliver the same privacy, security, and anonymity level as VPN does.
Can VPN be tracked?
Basically a VPN is a shield for everything you do online as it encrypts all your incoming and outgoing traffic. It also keeps up your online privacy and prevents others from trying to pry on your traffic and basically on you yourself. This is one of the biggest pro points of a virtual private network, and the primary reason why it is a sought-after privacy tool in these trying times.
So what it does protect you from is someone trying to look at your network traffic if they are positioned between you and your VPN provider (for example a correctly set-up VPN should prevent someone on the same wireless network as you from getting their hands on and reading your traffic).
The downside, however, is that the interceptor can easily detect that you are using a VPN. But, since the IP address will be that of the VPN server, they cannot track your real address or location. Unless they use other means such as installing malware on your system or getting to you through other information that you may have shared on Facebook or any other social network for that matter.
The sheer fact of using a VPN isn't going to stop people who want to trace specific activities on-line. A VPN isn't therefore likely to protect you from, say, a group like Anonymous — unless they happen to be on the same LAN as you. But it will keep you safe from the more trivial online perpetrators like cookie stuffers, data collectors or anyone using phishing techniques.
Can VPN be hacked?
If, perchance, you somehow present interest to very skilled hackers or very determined authorities (do you?), then yes, hacking a VPN can be theoretically possible (just as any other software). In 99% other cases — stay cool, there’s nothing to worry about. However, this is what can be attempted towards your VPN:
you can be de-anonymized and exposed by doxing
your IP isn't the only thing that identifies you on the internet — info can be found in other sources like social accounts;
your VPN service sees your actual IP and traffic, therefore if someone hacks the VPN provider itself, they would find you;
it is possible to install malware that is hard to detect on your device without you knowing, and the malware will be leaking your info to the attacker.
Hacking a VPN requires only the best skills and hackers who can break a VPN app by finding and using its vulnerabilities, or by stealing the encryption key — which in itself isn’t a walk in the park. Just make sure to choose a secure and trustworthy provider, and you are good to go. You are exposed to much more online dangers without one, so owning a VPN really can’t do any harm except much good.
Can VPN traffic be monitored?
Theoretically, traffic that is going through a VPN could be monitored on the VPN server exit point (which may or many not coincide with the server), or on its way from exit point to the final destination. Normally the use of end-to-end encryption like HTTPS takes care of this problem.
Your Internet service provider and all parties on the way from you to your VPN server can only show that there is some traffic exchange going on between you and the VPN server, but they cannot peek at what that traffic contains. The traffic patterns themselves still may be used to associate you with your activity, if someone records it. But realistically, the traffic itself wouldn’t be deciphered anything close to what it actually was. You can launch some downloads or start up an online radio to add some noise to your traffic patterns if you are feeling especially distrustful of what’s out there.
Can VPN be blocked?
In fact, yes. There are some countries where the use of VPNs is banned, and global streaming services like Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and BBC tend to blacklist VPN services (cause they have some territory-licensed content with they don’t wish to be fined for if users bypass the restriction).
Technically VPNs can be blocked in several ways:
By blocking DNS resolution;
Blocking connections to the specific VPN endpoints by IP and/or port address (but they have to know specifically whom to block and see how their client works);
A VPN service owns a limited number of IP addresses. And since most VPN servers use IPv4 protocol, it’s difficult to generate unique IP addresses, which leads to a number of subscribers using the same IP addresses for months (and more). Websites that blacklist VPNs use special online services to block IP addresses that have been used by multiple different users;
By forcing all traffic via a password protected http proxy (which blocks lots of other things along the way like Windows updates — annoying);
And as a last resort it is possible to just block all other traffic including DNS (as it is possible to encapsulate vpn traffic inside DNS packets) — at this point the Internet performance would become frustrating to an average business user and unacceptable to a home user (no streaming services, voip etc).
But once again let us postulate that only a serious corporation (various governments included) will have the need, time and means to do that to the average Internet user. In other cases you’re safe.
What is a VPN, and why do I need it?
A virtual private network is a tool that allows you to access restricted websites and hides your data from ISP, government, and hackers. It also anonymizes your IP address and changes your geolocation for the outer world.
Is it legal to use a VPN?
VPNs are mostly legal. Although some countries block VPN connections, it does not equal violating the law. Using a VPN is illegal in only two circumstances:
1) VPN is prohibited by the government of your country.
2) You commit illegal actions using a VPN.
How much does a VPN cost?
The price of a VPN subscription depends on your chosen provider. There are several factors that affect the cost of a VPN:
Number of devices covered;
Traffic limits (or lack thereof);
Number of locations you can connect to;
The terms of the contract.
Some VPN providers offer a trial version for free. However, the load speed and the connection quality may be low, the number of available locations is limited. Please, remember that VPN providers cover the service costs (for server maintenance and traffic), that's why the service can't be completely free for everyone. Free VPN access is a compromise that is covered with revenue generated by paid subscriptions.
Are free VPNs safe?
Yes, if you choose a trustworthy VPN.
What are the risks of using a VPN?
The biggest risk is choosing the wrong VPN service. Many VPN providers log their users’ activities. In such cases, your personal data becomes vulnerable and can fall into the hands of third-parties.
What are the benefits of using a VPN?
Besides the ability to access blocked Internet content, VPN hides your online identity. It means that your ISP (Internet Service Provider) doesn’t know your browsing history, and governments or hackers can’t trace the direction of your Internet traffic.
Can VPNs steal your data?
Since the majority of traffic is transferred through an encrypted HTTPS protocol, third parties, including VPN providers, don’t have full access to your data. Therefore, your chat, password, or bank card details can’t be stolen.
Nonetheless, the domain names of websites and some other data aren’t encrypted and can be sold to third parties for commercial or other uses. Reputable VPN providers mustn’t use this data or even log it.
Are VPNs safe for online banking?
As per industry requirements, bank websites and applications use an HTTPS protocol to transfer data to and from their servers, and even if your VPN provider is compromised, hijackers cannot access sensitive data of yours.
Can a VPN see my passwords?
Largely, no. The majority of passwords are encrypted and transferred through an HTTPS protocol and cannot be seen by a VPN provider.
What information does a VPN collect?
Depending on the jurisdiction, a VPN provider may be legally obliged to log the websites you visit, your IP address, and the IP address of the server you are connected to. However, VPN providers operating in offshore jurisdictions and some European countries like Cyprus or Switzerland are not subject to such requirements and usually don’t log your Internet activity.
Apart from logging, there’s one more thing — metadata logging. That term stands for a process of logging of server addresses and ports leased to a user by a VPN service provider. That kind of logging doesn’t tell anything about users and may be used at most to investigate service misuses.
Does a VPN make online shopping safer?
No, it doesn’t. Today, bank card details are encrypted and transferred through a secure HTTPS protocol only. Therefore, to steal your sensitive banking data, your device either needs to be hijacked, or you should enter the card details on a phishing web page. VPN doesn’t protect you in both cases.
Does all traffic go through a VPN?
It depends on your settings. While all the traffic is usually tunneled, some VPN apps (for instance, AdGuard VPN) may allow you to tunnel only traffic to specific networks or domains in order not to affect other connections.
Does a VPN give you unlimited data?
Usually VPN providers cap the speed and limit the available data volume for users of free plans. Conversely, the paid VPN users most often get unlimited speed and traffic. And the only thing VPN providers usually limit for users with subscriptions is the number of connected devices.
Does a VPN drain battery?
Data encryption is computationally expensive and can quickly drain your battery if poorly implemented. However, today, mobile devices encrypt data using special CPU instructions (ARMv8 Cryptography Extensions) and/or computationally inexpensive encryption algorithms, specifically designed for mobile devices (for instance, ChaCha-Poly1305). For any of these methods to work, a developer of a VPN app should care about it while developing their software. We at AdGuard keep energy efficiency in mind and guarantee that our mobile apps are highly optimized and consume as little energy as possible.