If Antimalware software protects computer devices, what can we use to secure data that flows through the public network between our computer and the Internet? The online network protocol we used when accessing the Internet is fundamentally exposed to an outside system, including the Internet Service Provider (ISP), the government, and even by hackers with the right tools.
Some protocol-based countermeasures such as Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and email encryption started to be used to maintain Internet safety. However, as our diversity toward online service usage expanding and growing needs of using any application without system security concerns have required a solution.
To resolve such issues the technology called Virtual Private Network (VPN) was invented. In this article, we will look into the VPN fundamentals, benefits, and service use cases in detail.
Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a networking technology service for setting up a secure virtual route when accessing the Internet. Think of as you being able to create a private network within the public internet network to access online resources. By using a VPN, you can protect your information from being intercepted or manipulated by public threats.
How does VPN Work?
VPN provides a secure network by routing your internet access to the private server owned by the corresponding VPN service instead of the server associated with your Internet Service Provider. From a public standpoint, your network requests are getting transmitted from an anonymous server IP address instead of your home IP. This way you can freely browse the Internet without exposing your IP address.
Most VPN also provide basic encryption to obfuscate the network contents. Even if a hacker was able to intercept your network through an intermediate relay point, the data contents will not be revealed without using the proper decryption password also known as a key. VPN keys are strongly protected with length and encoding which makes it impossible to be deciphered by third party persons. Only the VPN server knows the key to properly handle further communication.
Benefits of Using VPN
Before VPN became the mainstream, organizations used dedicated network routes to securely access internal information from outside. Although a dedicated network ensures access security and bandwidth, the cost for maintaining numbers of lines with a range of distances and speeds tends to quickly increase. As these networks were designed for one-to-one communication, additional costs were introduced based on the number of business sites, divisions, and employees.
VPN was introduced as an innovative technology to help reduce costs by utilizing the Internet while maintaining security. By using VPN, businesses only had to accommodate the cost for the Internet providers fee and initial line installation instead of building each dedicated line.
- Allows LAN to be virtually constructed without physical restrictions.
- Let's you use the Internet without your IP address being exposed.
- Apply security even when using publicly free Wi-Fi.
- Setup a secured network similar to a dedicated network line with a much lower cost.
Types of VPN
Standalone VPN Service
Most VPN used in home and small business falls under this category. You can simply set up a standalone VPN in few minutes by purchasing a service and install an application. Many VPN services provide features, such as server selection, VPN Kill switch, and custom encryption to enhance your private network experience.
Some VPN optimized the setup by making it into a browser add-on. You can set up a VPN on your favorite browsers such as Chrome and Firefox by simply installing the free VPN add-on or extension from their marketplace. It is worth mentioning that Opera comes with its built-in VPN by default.
Although this method lets your browser requests and responses be protected, the network access from non-browser applications will remain exposed. Browser VPN is also known to have more vulnerabilities such as IP leaks to occur.
By using a VPN compatible router, it is possible to configure your router to route all network calls through a VPN. The benefit of Router VPN is that you can secure all your devices and IoT networks at once, including speakers, web camera, and smart TV.
Some downside is initial setup may require technical understanding to make sure your router and VPN service is compatible with each other. Also, keep in mind that VPN enabled router may be slightly more expensive than a normal router.
Middle to large size business environments often uses VPN to let their employees remotely access the internal network from outside. Because the business nature requires data transmission to be more bandwidth-heavy and confidential, some VPN services are more dedicated toward suiting the business needs.
Common VPN Protocols
There are mainly two types of VPN structure that we can use, Internet VPN and IP-VPN
As the name indicates, internet VPN is designed to use a general internet network for the base data flow. The key benefit of using the Internet is the low cost. Internet VPNs can be further categorized into the following types.
IPsec, short for IP Security Architecture, is a protocol system that encrypts network communication to provide end to end security. Even if communication data gets intercepted by a third party hacker, encrypted information will remain protected as the shared key is required for decryption.
To implement IPsec-VPN, a dedicated application must be installed on both sender and receiver endpoints. The communication speed is quite fast without much lag.
SSL-VPN is also designed to protect network content by data encryption similar to IPsec-VPN. The core difference is the OSI model layer where the protocol is implemented. While IPsec-VPN encryption is implemented in the Network layer, SSL-VPN is implemented in the higher Session layer.
IPsec does not depend on the higher-level application protocols such as HTTP and SMTP. However, SSL-VPN requires each application to support the SSL protocol. For example, adopting SSL-VPN makes HTTP become HTTPS, and POP becomes POP over SSL.
The setup cost for SSL-VPN is very low as its commonly done by installing an SSL compatible application. Because the encryption protocol must rely on the application, the communication speed may be slower compared to IPsec.
L2TP / IPsec
Also known as L2TP over IPsec VPN which utilizes Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) technology for protection. L2TP itself does not provide encryption, however, it supports a mechanism called tunneling protocol which allows passing encryption protocol (i.e. IPsec) to ensure data content integrity and confidentiality.
Point to Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is another method used for structuring VPN. Microsoft has contributed to the proposition of PPTP as making Windows highly compatible to set up this type of VPN.
The main difference from IPsec is the number of tunnels it deploys to perform data transactions. PPTP utilizes a single VPN tunnel for both sending and receiving data, compare to IPsec which creates multiple VPN tunnels.
The term "Open" may throw you off, but OpenVPN is known to have one of the best security. OpenVPN is driven by open source development which means there are no secrets or confidentiality in the technology. Anyone can look into the mechanism therefore its security strength and fairness are proven.
Another type of VPN is called IP-VPN. This VPN avoids transmitting data over the public internet and instead utilizes its private connection dedicated to the remote endpoint. IP-VPN is a preferred method for medium to large size businesses to provide employees a closed network to securely access their organization's confidential information.
The communication security, as well as its stability and speed that IP-VPN provides, is known to be better than the Internet VPN. IP-VPN utilizes a technology known as Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) which passes two types of headers called labels to independently identify the data transmission routers from the network routes.
How to Choose a VPN
Today there are many VPN providers available. Choosing the right provider is very important to protect your network experience. As a guideline, you should consider the following aspects when comparing VPN providers.
Privacy - The nature of a VPN is to provide security and privacy. However, some VPN providers are known to track and sell their clients' activities. Make sure you choose a provider that does not keep any logs.
Security - You never want to jeopardize your security when it comes to VPN. Look into the encryption method. We recommend advanced protocols such as 256-bit AES, IKEv2 or OpenVPN as security standards.
Speed - Utilize the speed test service available at the VPN providers' websites.
Server Locations - Most VPN service provides multiple server locations. To minimize network lags check for servers closely located to your home.
Tech Support - Good tech support can save your day in case of VPN related trouble.
Common VPN Questions
Is VPN Safe?
Long Answer: There are a variety of VPN services that comes with different kinds of encryption protocols. As a measurement of security standard, a VPN that uses 128-bit or 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standards (AES) is considered very secure. Some advanced protocols such as OpenVPN and IKEv2 can be used to enhance your security.
Is VPN Legal?
Long Answer: VPN is perfectly legal in many countries including the United States. Many business employers and government associates use VPN on a daily bases to prevent data leakage through public network exposure.
However, using a VPN for cybercriminal activities is never legal for any circumstances.
Can My ISP See My VPN Activities?
Long Answer: Internet access using VPN does not go through your ISP, instead it will be directly routed to the VPN server. This is one of the main advantages that VPN provides to avoid your online activities from being monitored and recorded.
Can I Trust My VPN Provider?
Answer: Depends on the VPN
Long Answer: Some VPN providers are known to keep records of their clients' activities. There are some cases that activity information was handed over to the government by court orders.
There are VPN providers that do not track records. If you want to make sure your VPN activities are completely protected, do as much research as possible beforehand and avoid free VPN services.