It often feels like there’s a disconnect between the way we use the internet and the way it’s built and legislated for. We expect the internet to be a freely accessible global network and are surprised to find geographic restrictions. We expect a level of privacy which isn’t always respected by online services or protected by law. VPN services are an increasingly popular way to anonymise your online activity, but the details are less clear-cut than some VPN advertisements would have you believe. This article explores the ways you can use VPNs to improve your online experience but also outlines some of the areas where they fall short.
Internet protocols – What’s actually private?
In 2022 95% of websites listed on Google search use HTTPS. HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) is the secure version of HTTP which is the protocol behind the distribution of web pages over the World Wide Web and the communication of data between a web page and a user. Over HTTP all communications occur in plain text and can be intercepted by anyone on the network using simple free software. When using HTTPS the packets you send and receive can still be intercepted by others on the same network but are encrypted, so they will be seen as unreadable strings of characters rather than meaningful information. HTTPS also prevents your ISP from seeing the specific URLs and content of sites you visit, although they can still generally see the domain names being accessed.
Although HTTPS is now widely regarded as the standard for internet communication, you will likely still encounter web pages which are only available through an unsecured HTTP connection. When you visit a web page your browser should tell you whether or not you are using HTTPS (Typically this is done with a padlock icon in the URL bar). So even without a VPN if you see a padlock in the browser you can rest assured any data you send to the site is encrypted as it travels between you and them.
What is a VPN and how does it work?
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) were first used as a way for employees to securely access resources on an internal company network remotely. These business-oriented VPNs are still widely used but are distinct from the more consumer-oriented VPNs which are the focus of this article. These are primarily focused on privacy protection and providing access to region-locked content but use the same underlying technology as the business VPNs which came before them.
In terms of personal use, a VPN hides your IP address by acting as an intermediary for your internet traffic. Rather than sending your internet traffic directly to a web server, you send and receive packets to and from the VPN server through an encrypted tunnel and it forwards them to and from the web server on your behalf. This way anyone watching your network traffic (including your ISP) will only see an encrypted connection from your device to the VPN server. The web server itself will only see a connection between itself and the VPN server and not your device. Now your interactions with the web server being accessed are separated from you and can only be seen by the VPN server itself.
When you connect to a website through a VPN server, the site will only see the region of the VPN server and not the region of your device. If you access a website from Sydney through a VPN server in Tokyo, the site will see you as if you were accessing it from Tokyo directly. For this reason, many consumer VPN services offer servers in several regions worldwide. You can use them to access region-locked content (including streaming online movies and TV shows which are only available in specific regions).
Downsides to using a VPN
Although a VPN hides your internet traffic from outsiders, the VPN server itself still knows both ends of your connection. That is why finding a VPN service which respects your privacy is so important. By using a VPN you’re effectively shifting your trust from your ISP to the VPN company.
Another downside to using a VPN is that routing your traffic through a VPN server will inevitably slow down the speed of your connection. This can be especially annoying if you’re using a VPN for online video streaming.
While some speed reduction is unavoidable, you can improve your connection by using a VPN server closer to your location (maybe even in your city) or by trying another VPN service altogether. If you’re in Sydney and you connect to a VPN server which is also in Sydney you will experience a negligible drop in speed. If you connect to a VPN server in London you will experience a far more significant drop in speed as any traffic needs to first travel to the other side of the planet before reaching its final destination. Of course, if you’re using a VPN for accessing region-locked content switching to a closer server might not be an option.
Do you need a VPN?
Ultimately, whether or not you should use a VPN depends on the way you use the internet. Secure, trustworthy VPN services can be expensive, and regular HTTPS might already provide the security you need. Streaming online films and television probably isn’t something you desperately want to hide from your ISP and the extra speed you get from not using a VPN might be needed to avoid buffering or get you to a higher resolution. On the other hand, if you’re doing something you would rather not share with your ISP or you’re away from home and using public internet the extra privacy offered by a VPN might be worth the drop in speed.
If you do choose to use a VPN you should probably consider the added cost and speed reduction it will bring when choosing an internet plan. To read more about choosing the right internet plan for you, click here.