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What are VPNs?

A virtual private network (VPN) is technology that allows you to create a private connection over a non-private network. VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address so that your online actions are untraceable, allowing you to prevent your internet service provider from accessing your web browsing history, to avoid compromising your sensitive data on public Wi-Fi, to protect online activities such as sending emails, shopping, and making financial transactions, to get around censorship in a censoring country, and to access geo-restricted content from another country.

VPNs create an encrypted tunnel between your local network and an exit node in another location that is quite distant from your actual location, perhaps even in another country, making it appear as if you are in another place. VPNs use encryption to scramble data when it is sent over a Wi-Fi network, making the data unreadable. You may want to use a VPN for either personal or professional reasons. Here are some VPN terms you may need to know1:

Encryption. An algorithm securely encodes data so that it appears like random, digitally illegible, information. Upon reaching its destination, a cipher decrypts it.

Five Eyes. The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have a mass surveillance and intelligence sharing agreement, and other agreements include Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes. If a VPN provider is headquartered in one of the nations in an agreement, it will follow their data-sharing practices. For these reasons, it is recommended to use VPN providers with headquarters in other locations.

Geoblocking. Blocking access to online content in certain locations.

IP Count. The number of IP addresses used by a VPN provider. Larger supplies offer higher speeds and are less likely to have you sharing IP addresses with other users.

Jurisdiction. The country where a VPN provider’s headquarters is located.

Obfuscation. This is the act of making internet traffic passing through a VPN looking like it is non-VPN internet traffic.

Perfect Forward Secrecy. An encryption function that used key exchanges to create an additional level of security.

Server count. The number of servers maintained in a VPN network.

Kill switch. A feature that kills your internet connection if your VPN connection is dropped, in order to prevent data from becoming visible to others.

Leak. When a VPN service fails and exposes your data to a website, network member, or an internet service provider.

Logs. VPN providers may keep connection logs and usage logs. Connection logs are kept for a brief time to assess the wider maintenance needs of its server network. Usage logs include a record of your IP address and websites you have visited- and these usage logs should never be kept by a VPN provider. If a VPN provider is caught keeping usage logs, do not use their service.

Split-tunneling. This is the act of using two kinds of VPN tunnels simultaneously, such as one for internet activity in a browser and another for internet activity from phone and computer applications.

Tor. Tor is an abbreviation for The Onion Browser, which is designed to allow for a completely anonymous communication on the internet by bouncing your encrypted data off of several volunteer-run receiving points called “nodes”. Tor is not a VPN, but some VPNs are now Tor-compatible.

1 Hodge, 2019, “All the VPN terms you need to know”