People use virtual private networks (VPNs) for a number of reasons, and more of them have begun to use the service now. Daniel Markuson, digital privacy expert at NordVPN to gain insight into how they work and why demand is rising now.

How VPN Encryption Works

Markuson explained how using a VPN eliminates the digital breadcrumb trail we leave online:

“Typically, when you try to access a website on the internet, you start by connecting to your internet service provider (ISP). They redirect you to any websites (or other online resources) that you wish to visit.”

Because you have everything coming through your ISP’s servers all your online activity can be observed and logged. It’s even possible that your online behavior will be passed on “to advertisers, government agencies, and other third parties.”

For those concerned about that, the VPN offers a solution: “It redirects your internet traffic through a specially configured remote server.”

“Your ISP can no longer see which websites you visit because all your activity is routed through the VPN server.” In addition, it obscures “your IP address and encrypts all the data you send or receive.”

Should anyone tap into the encrypted transmission, they won’t gain anything because they won’t be able to make any sense of it.

Think Layers of Security

He suggested you can think of the VPN as creating an encrypted “tunnel” over the internet. “That secures the data traveling between you and your destination — anything from a search engine to an online banking account.”

“This tunnel is created by first authenticating your client — a computer, smartphone, or tablet — with a VPN server. The server then applies an encryption protocol to all data going back and forth between you and your online destination.”

He points out data transmitted over the internet “is is first split into packets.” In effect, the VPN wraps each data packet in an “outer packet, which is then then encrypted through a process called encapsulation.”

It is that additional layer that “keeps the data safe during the transfer, and it is the core element of the VPN tunnel.” Once the data arrives at the intended destination,
“the outer packet is removed” as it is decrypted.

These packets also are associated with different IP addresses than your own, which makes them not create a trail linked to you. “If you connect to a server in another country, you will appear to be browsing from that country."

Why VPN Use is Rising

The advantage of using a VPN is that it grants safe access to the internet, which Markuson said, is particularly appealing for someone who needs to rely on public Wi-Fi, particularly when traveling. In addition to gaining security, they are able to tap into “unrestricted and uncensored content from anywhere in the world.”

Even while most of us are not traveling, though, VPN usage is up.

“The overall trend is that the use of VPNs is spreading beyond tech-savvy people. It is becoming more popular among regular household users who have never used a VPN service before,” Markuson observed.

He explained that the increased usage seen now “correlates with self-isolation, the quarantine, and social distancing happening around the world due to the coronavirus,” though there are also “certain peaks” on weekends. That would jibe with the statistics here that indicate primary motivator people to use a VPN is better online entertainment.

Of course, there are also regional differences in usage, and VPN are completely off the table for use in countries that have made it illegal or restricted their use.

Markuson confirmed that is the case for countries such as China, Russia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Turkey, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Belarus, North Korea, and Uganda. He explained that “is mainly because these countries are trying to limit the information their citizens can receive from the internet.”

Service Selection: Price and Privacy

There are companies that offer a free VPN, so the question arises, if one only gets what one pays for?

“Reliable providers invest vast sums of money in their product and its infrastructure,” Markuson explained, so they have to recoup that in fees. When you get the service for free, you’re paying in a different way with your data. For that reason, he warns that any free service needs to be carefully reviewed for all the clauses hidden in the fine print:

“Most of the free VPN services tend to collect users’ data and sell it to third-party advertising companies or the authorities. Before signing up, users should always check service policies and learn about how their data is being processed.”

A transparent privacy policy should be one of the main criteria used in selecting the service, Markuson pointed out, because “a lot of potentially sensitive personal information is included in usage logs.”

“While most providers claim to run no-log VPN services, some of them might still collect extensive connection logs. That’s a problem because third parties could use this information about your internet access to identify you.”

His suggestions to ascertain the level of privacy include looking at the following:

  • Types of data the service collects about users and their internet usage
  • External support or tracking tools it uses
  • Country where the service operates and the local legal requirements for collecting user data.

He also recommends having their claims ascertained by an external audit, which he says was the case for NordVPN, which had its no-logging claims confirmed by the industry-first audit performed by PricewaterhouseCoopers AG, Zurich, Switzerland. The company also assures users that it doesn’t store session information, used bandwidth, traffic data, IP addresses, or any other data.

While he considers the privacy issues of paramount importance, he acknowledges other considers would vary according to “a user’s preferences and needs, for example, simultaneous

connections, supported devices/operating systems, servers’ locations, etc.” Additional things to look for in a company that deserves your business may include a money-back warranty and easy-to-reach customer support.

Final Thoughts

As with many other things, if something appears to be too good to be true, it usually is. When it comes to free internet services, that often means that you’re paying by providing data that may be far more valuable than the fees for service may be.

It also does seem just a bit ironic to give up privacy in order to use a service meant to secure your privacy.

Just something to think about.