Basically a VPN service allows someone to have a secure, encrypted, private and anonymous connection to the web. Using either installed software and/or some network setting changes, a person establishes a connection to the web via private servers.
Your data is essentially “tunnelled” and encrypted through the VPN provider’s servers, which are usually located in uncensored (or less censored) countries around the world. The result is your IP address is hidden, your geographic surfing location can be changed and no one in the middle of the connection can see the data or what sites you’re visiting.
Loosely speaking, it sort of like using an anonymous proxy but a VPN covers your entire connection and it’s better, faster and much more secure.
This blog post from Tuvpn provides an excellent explanation and graphic showing how a VPN service works:
- Security – VPN’s allow for a secured encrypted connection, so that even if your data is intercepted (like at a wi-fi hotspot), it’s pretty much useless to the person who captured it.
- Anonymity – IP addresses are increasingly being mapped almost all the way down to an individual address, so if you don’t want sites to know who you are or where you’re visiting from, a VPN will hide your own IP address and replace it with theirs.
- Privacy – This kind of goes along with security and anonymity but general privacy breaches like this one by Google are constantly increasing in frequency.
- Bypass geographic content restrictions – For example, Hulu is not available outside the US, BBC videos aren’t available outside the UK, etc.
- Avoid unfair “traffic shaping” – some ISP’s will slow traffic down when they detect certain types of data being transferred (such as videos).
- Bypass government or network filters and censors.
Imagine surfing the net without access to common sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Yahoo, Myspace, Wikipedia, CNN, BBC, NyTimes, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. That’s what it’s like for many people living, working or travelling in China due to government censorship and internet filtering. VPN services are one really good way they can work around that issue. Same goes for other censorship heavy countries like Iran and ones that are introducing filters such as Australia and New Zealand. In addition, bloggers, journalists and whistleblowers often depend on anonymity and bypassing censorship filters to report news, expose corruption and fight for human rights issues.
Really, anyone who is security or privacy conscious can benefit from a VPN to maintain their freedom of access to information and peace of mind; anyone from travellers to those seeking more security for their home network.
As you can probably already guess though, obviously people will also use VPN services for less legitimate, controversial or illegal activities. That’s just kind of the way it is and gets into a whole host of philosophical and ethical debates that are impossible to come to a unanimous conclusion about.
For the most part, VPN service providers ask or require their subscribers to abide by what’s lawful. However, many of them (at least the good ones) are only concerned about activities that may harm their network and aren’t going to consider an activity unlawful if it’s a basic human right. Some VPN’s use the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as sort of a baseline philosophy for determining what they allow over their network and what they won’t, regardless of what country you’re in. The variations of philosophies really kind of run the gamut between different VPN providers, so it’s important for people to check out the fine print.
There’s probably an endless number of intricate reasons people decide to use a VPN service but let’s explore a good core list of the types of people who use it and what their motivations are:
- Journalists – Unfiltered, secure, and anonymous access to the web from anywhere is absolutely essential to journalists around the world. Even their lives and personal safety can depend on it! VPN’s are one solution they may seek out to help accomplish that.
- Bloggers – Anonymous and secure blogging is an extremely important thing for many people around the world, probably much more than you might realize. From things such as expressing opinions behind a repressive regime to avoiding employer repercussions, blogging anonymously and securely is something people take very seriously to protect themselves.
- Activists – For the same reasons as above, many activists depend on a number of anonymous and security measures to prevent backlash for their activities.
- People being subjected to censorship – As mentioned with people accessing the internet in China, using something like a VPN is essential to having unfiltered access to the Internet and enjoying the things many of us take for granted.
- Deployed military personnel – Often times military personnel stationed in various locations find themselves in a situation where they can’t access things they feel they should be able to. Many use a VPN service as a workaround, even for things as simple as accessing Facebook to keep in touch with family, for watching videos, checking their bank account, etc.
- Security and privacy minded people – Many home wifi networks can be hacked into and snooped on with relative ease. For example, a home router with WEP encryption can be easily cracked in about 2-3 minutes by someone driving by with the right software. In addition, many don’t like the idea of governments and ISP’s being able to peek in on their activities, much less anyone else being able to spy on their surfing activities or chat conversations.
- Travellers who frequently use wi-fi or public networks – Wi-fi networks at airports, coffee shops, etc. are a horrible place to expect any kind of privacy or security without use of something like a VPN. Criminals looking to scoop up private data will routinely set up what’s called an “evil twin” connection at a hotspot location, which can end up leading to a total breach of people’s personal information and passwords. People who travel a lot and use wi-fi networks frequently are very likely to realize how important it is to take security measures and use a solution like a VPN.
- Bittorrent and P2P users – Obviously many people use torrents and p2p networks for sharing copyrighted content, which is of course something with widely varying philosophical and ethical points of view. However, even those using torrents for unquestionably legitimate purposes will look to anonymity solutions like a VPN to avoid getting caught up in any misguided legal witch hunts. And with many torrent or p2p programs, all it takes is a mistaken tick of a box to accidentally share copyrighted content.
- Expats and Travelers – Many people away from their home country routinely find themselves unable to access certain content they were used to at home (i.e. – Hulu) or they may end up behind a filter. They may also be suspicious of the connections they have to use while away and want some added security.
- University Students behind overly restrictive firewalls or unsecure networks at school – Some universities go completely overboard with their network restrictions which can sometimes even prevent students from doing basic research. Many end up using VPN’s so they don’t have to worry about that issue. Plus, many students simply don’t agree philosophically with what the school has decided to block, filter or restrict.
- People concerned about “Big Brother” snooping – Some people are just downright paranoid about everyone and everything, especially the government. Agree with them or not, hard to blame them for wanting to protect themselves from prying eyes.
Above all, when you get down to it people are really seeking out peace of mind, convenience and safety.
Occasionally we take polls of our readers on VPN Related topics.
In our first poll we asked the basic question when it comes to VPN usage, why are people looking for a VPN. The result is clear with 65% of responders seeking anonymity on the web as their primary reason for looking for a VPN service.