July 12, 2021

What is a VPN and Why Should You be Using One?

Posted by Rhiannon

The term VPN is an acronym for “virtual private network.” But what is a VPN? Simply put, they are a security tool businesses and individuals can use to protect their information online. This is especially important in the age of hacking, where a skilled cybercriminal may be able to steal your personal and financial information if you connect to the web without extra protection. VPN services add layers of encryption and anonymity to all of your online activities, keeping them hidden from all prying eyes. They do this through what can best be described as a tunnel. When a person connects to a VPN, a virtual tunnel is created between their device, and the website they’re visiting. No one outside of this tunnel can see into it, thus keeping the user protected. 

Let’s break it down deeper. VPNs function by:

  • Hiding or changing your IP address
  • Encrypting data transfers

Hiding or Changing Your IP Address

Anyone can ask the question “what is a VPN,” and receive the short answer. A VPN is a digital privacy tool. This answer may satisfy some. However, anyone serious about their online privacy would benefit from a deeper understanding of how virtual private networks actually work. After all, a tool is more effective when the person using it knows what they’re doing.

The first thing a VPN does once connected is change or hide your IP address. Your IP address, formatted as a string of numbers, is essentially your digital home address and is assigned to you by your internet service provider. It identifies your device so websites can correctly send your online activity back to you. IP addresses are the building blocks of the internet and, without them, the web simply couldn’t function. 

But why does a VPN need to hide yours? Unfortunately, although they make the web work, IPs may offer up personally identifying information to anyone who knows how to see it. This information may include your real name, location, contact information, and more. By changing your IP address, no identifying information can be associated with you. A different IP address can also give you greater access to the web, which we’ll discuss in further detail below.

In order to actually change your IP address, most VPN services simply reroute your online activity from the servers of your internet service provider through their own servers.

Encrypting Data Transfers

Whenever you use the web, data is transferred between your device and the websites you visit. While most of this data may seem entirely harmless, almost all of it has value to some third party. Something as simple as buying a pair of socks from Amazon can tell advertisers your name, email, favourite colour, and foot size, all of which helps them target you with better, more personalised ads. While you may not care about the information advertisers get, what happens if hackers happen to be spying on your activity when you’re conducting banking transactions and money transfers? They can use this information to steal your money or even your identity. 

Of course, most private internet networks (like your home internet network), as well as many modern websites, use their own layers of encryption to protect your data against hackers. However, all too often, these measures fail and data is breached en masse. By adding your own layer of encryption through a VPN, the likelihood of this happening becomes significantly reduced. In addition, public networks, like public wi-fi, often don’t use any encryption at all, so others may see every action you take on a public network, thus exposing your data.

In order to guarantee that no one is snooping on your activity without your permission, VPNs provide a layer of encryption for your data. They do this by essentially establishing a tunnel between your device and the servers of the websites you visit. This tunnel only has one entrance and one exit. Your data leaves your device, travels through the tunnel, and reaches the website you want to visit at the other end. When the website sends data back to you, it enters the tunnel from their end, travels through the tunnel, and then exits it back at your device. There is no room for hackers or other prying eyes to see what you do and use that information against you.

Does a VPN Prevent Hacking?

VPNs are robust online privacy and security tools, and they do a lot of heavy lifting, from securing your data to granting you greater freedoms online. But can they protect you from hacking? The answer is yes! …And no. Ultimately, it depends on what you mean by hacking.

In some cases, hackers are able to steal your data and control your devices through unprotected wi-fi networks. Wi-fi is a wonderful thing but, ultimately, it’s less secure than a cable connection to the internet. If you’re using an unsafe network, a cybercriminal with some basic skills can potentially see everything you’re doing online, which means they can also steal your data. In addition, some unsecured networks can grant hackers direct access to your devices, which means they can inject malicious software into them. These types of software give hackers device control and the ability to spread the malicious software further. By using a VPN, you encrypt your activity and prevent this form of hacking from ever occurring. 

However, in other cases, hackers steal your data by tricking you into clicking a download or link that installs malicious software on your devices through your own actions. VPNs cannot protect users against this method of hacking (often referred to as phishing) simply because that’s not their purpose. However, combining a VPN with a robust antivirus software and developing better internet safety literacy can help you spot and avoid these attacks for the safest possible online experience.

Other VPN Uses

Now you know what VPNs are and how they work. But what is a VPN really for? Why would someone use such a tool? There are many different reasons:

  • Better privacy
  • Increased security
  • Masking your location
  • Private content downloads
  • Lower shopping prices
  • Safer online gaming

Better Privacy

When you access the Internet without a VPN, most websites track and store your personal information, including your browsing habits, the items you click on, how long you spend on certain pages, and more. Then, those websites sell that data to advertising companies who use it to tailor ads directly to you. Your IP address can also track your location, even when you turn off location services. By using a VPN, you eliminate website access to your personally identifying information, which means they can’t collect or sell it, or trace any of your activity back to you.

Increased Security

New methods of intercepting and hacking data are developed every day. VPNs offer encryption to prevent your information from falling victim to those new methods. They are especially practical in the case of data transfers made over public networks, like wi-fi hotspots. Public networks use little to no data encryption so your information can be accessed by anyone looking for it. A VPN prevents that from happening. Even for users on private networks, VPNs add a great extra layer of security for all of your most sensitive activities, like online banking and money transfers, private conversations, and more.

Masking Your Location and Unblocking Content

By hiding your IP address, a VPN does more than just protect your identity online. It can also mask your location in the real world. When a VPN routes your internet traffic through one of their own servers, your visible IP address will be based in the location of that server. Many VPN services offer servers around the world and allow you to choose the one you’d prefer to connect to. For example, if you live in London, England but select a server in New York City, it will appear as though you are actually in New York. 

This further protects your identity and prevents your browsing activity from being traced back to you. It also goes further than that by giving users the ability to access content that was previously blocked from them. For example, streaming services often restrict the content available on their platforms based on the region of the watcher. A TV show available in the United States might not be available in Canada. This often happens to obey copyright laws but can be frustrating for the end user. By changing your apparent online location with a VPN, you may gain access to these blocked shows.

In addition, some countries engage in strict censorship laws, restricting access to much of the content on the web, or corralling users within their own small corner of the internet. By changing your location with a VPN to a location outside of these countries, you can get around censorship for freer access to the web.

Private Content Downloads

Downloading content is a popular way to access media like movies, music, and games. However, content downloads are often tracked, putting the downloader at risk. For example, a person who downloads a movie from the web may find a letter in the mail a few weeks later from the company that owns the movie ordering them to cease and desist or pay a fine for violating copyright. These letters show up because “copyright trolls,” or people hired by media companies to track illegal downloads, can glean your home address from your IP address, if they catch you downloading something you shouldn’t. In addition, depending on the network you download from, other users may also be able to gather information about you from your IP address, which they can exploit. By changing your IP and online identity with a VPN, you can more effectively protect your downloads.

Lower Shopping Prices

When you buy a pair of socks from Amazon for $10, you don’t expect that someone in another country, or even one city over, can buy those same socks for $7. However, that’s often the case with many online retailers. They use a tactic called dynamic pricing which changes the price they display for goods and services based on the location your IP address tells them you’re in. This often increases the price of goods for those in affluent areas, and may decrease the price for poorer areas. In addition, dynamic pricing algorithms can often see the items you have looked at in the past and increase the price for them once you return to that item. This is especially common in the booking industry, where the services offered include flights, accommodations, and car rentals. 

Needless to say, this practice is incredibly annoying and even costly to you. However, by changing your IP address with a VPN, and therefore your apparent location in the world, you can compare prices for the same services and buy the one that offers the best price.

Safer Online Gaming

Millions of people around the world unwind after a long day by playing video games online. Not only is this a great way to relax, it also helps connect people. But, like anything else online, digital gaming comes with a few different privacy risks. For example, many users connect their credit cards and personal information to the games or gaming platforms they use (like Steam or Origin). Poor network security may allow hackers to sneak into those accounts and steal that data. In other cases, other players may be able to see your IP address, which they can trace back to your home address. Using a VPN protects against both these threats, leaving you free to play games on Origin, Steam, and any other digital platform without worrying about your privacy. 

As an added bonus, using a VPN may also prevent lag, a problem that has left many an online gamer howling with frustration. Many internet service providers deliberately slow customer speed when they see that customer doing an internet intensive activity like online gaming. This saves the ISP money, and invariably annoys the gamer. However, someone using a VPN while gaming will have their internet activity hidden from their ISP, meaning the provider can’t slow their speeds.

The Limits of VPNs

With all of the features listed above, it seems that there isn’t anything a VPN can’t do. But, like with any technology, even VPNs can’t do everything. So, what is a VPN limited by? There are a few things:

  • The number of servers it offers
  • Service blocking
  • The law
  • User error

The Number of Servers

Some VPN companies are small. In many cases, this means they may not have many servers to offer their customers. Unfortunately, the fewer servers a VPN has, the more limited it is in the services it can offer. For example, a US-based VPN with servers only found in the US cannot grant users access to content outside of the country. In addition, if the company has too many people using a server at a time, the speed of the server may slow to a crawl, frustrating everyone using it.

Service Blocking

Some online services won’t work if you’re using a VPN. This is especially common with streaming platforms who don’t grant all content to all users for a reason. If they’re able to detect that a VPN is in use, they might prevent the user from accessing the platform until the VPN is turned off. While this is frustrating, many VPN services are constantly improving their software to remain undetected so that their users can’t be blocked access while the VPN is in use.

The Law

Unfortunately, some countries have banned the use of VPNs altogether. This is most common in countries where censorship is strict; the ruling governments of these nations don’t want their citizens to be able to get around their censorship protocols. Fortunately, this case of a VPN limit is the exception rather than the rule. Most countries allow their citizens to use virtual private networks at their own discretion.

User Error

VPNs protect users against a lot of online threats. Unfortunately, they can’t protect users from themselves. A user who doesn’t set up the VPN correctly, or who engages in unsafe online activities that VPNs can’t protect them from (such as email phishing) may find themselves hacked, despite the VPN.


So what is a VPN? It’s a privacy tool that grants users free and fair access to the entirety of the World Wide Web. In addition to protecting users online, it also helps mitigate digital censorship, circumvent geo-blocks, unlock better pricing for goods and services, and more. A good virtual private network is your ticket to the digital world; start using one now.

Posted by Rhiannon

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