What is a VPN?

What is VPN and why do people use it? VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and it allows you to establish a secure connection from your device, though Wi-Fi and your ISP, to the VPN service, and then out to the Internet. Using a VPN you can mask what you are doing from your ISP, which is particularly useful if you don't trust your ISP, such as when using a connection in a public place.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: What is a VPN?.

So VPNs, or virtual private networks, have been in the news a lot recently so you may be wondering what it is, how it works, and whether or not you should be using one. So let's take a look at what they are and what they get for you and then we'll look tomorrow at an example of using one on your Mac.

Here's what happens when you're using the internet with no WiFi security and you're not using websites that are secure. No HTTPS or secure socket layer connection. So a typical website that doesn't have high security and you're not using VPN. You're trying to send characters to the website and they are sent pretty much in the clear. You send ABC from the computer. It goes to the WiFi router as ABC. It goes from there to your ISP, your cable modem provider, your DSL provider, whatever it is as ABC. Then from there all the way to the website or server that you're using as ABC. It's all in the clear. Anybody intercepting any of that to record it, to log it, to spy on you, anything will just see exactly what it is that you sent or received from the website.

Now if you have WiFi security, which is typical for most people, you have a password set on your WiFi or you're using a secure WiFi server in some public place, then things are actually encrypted from your computer or device to the WiFi network but from there on it could be in the clear depending upon, you know, if there is any security from the website end. But if there is no security on the website, no HTTPS, or there's no VPN, then everything is sent in the clear and anybody at the ISP level for instance or between your ISP and the site can see what's going on.

So, how about if there's HTTPS. You're on a site like say your bank or Amazon or Facebook, or any site where you see that it's secure. There's a little lock up in the address bar. That means it's secure and anything between you and the website is going to be encrypted. Basically when you start using the website encryption begins between your device and the site and what you're sending, the ABC in my example here, it what is going to arrive at the other end but it's encrypted everywhere in-between. That's really nice and it provides a great level of security although not complete security as we will soon see.

Now here's a VPN. What a VPN does, is it creates a secure connection between you, your device, and the VPN is something that's between your ISP and the website you're visiting. So it secures everything you're sending between you and the WiFi router, the WiFi router and the ISP, and the ISP and the VPN. As long as you trust the VPN, which of course is the whole idea of having a VPN is having something you can trust, then the only place where you may be unencrypted if there is no use of a secure website is between the VPN and the site itself. But your ISP is out of the loop. They can't know what it is that you're sending back and forth to the website. So this is a really nice secure way to handle internet and it doesn't matter whether or not the WiFi is encrypted because you are encrypting everything between you and the VPN.

So this is a great way to not worry about WiFi security and it's a great way to prevent your ISP from logging what you're doing and knowing where you've been and what you've sent back and forth.

Now, what about HTTPS. Well as I showed before that seemed to provide a more complete solution because it secured everything from the website all the way to you. However, it's only securing your data. Your ISP still knows where you're going because you're typing in say you know Facebook. Facebook.com and your ISP knows that you're contacting Facebook.com it just doesn't know what you're sending. So between your ISP and the server that you're visiting it knows where you're going and if that is a concern for you, having that logged knowing what website you're going to, that you use gmail for your email, that you use a certain bank for your banking, that kind of stuff is still available. It's just the data that is encrypted.

However, with VPN it doesn't know where you're going as well as what you're sending. So to complete secure connection past your ISP. So it provides more security as far as encrypting everything that you're doing. It's just basically encrypted data being sent between you and your VPN.

Comments: 13 Responses to “What is a VPN?”

    Douglas Brace
    2 years ago

    In the video at 3:25 you said “it doesn’t matter whether or not the Wi-Fi is encrytped.” Even with a VPN, it is still important to have security on your Wi-Fi and local network because others could still gain access to your local network and other local data.

    2 years ago

    Douglas: Yes, what I mean is Wi-Fi that is not “yours” — like at a hotel, cafe, work, etc.

    2 years ago

    Thanks, the best description of a VPN I’ve seen for us who are not as computer savvy as we would like.

    2 years ago

    Hi, which vpn would you recommend for traveling to China? I know most free vpn’s can not be trusted but which vpn’s can be trusted since there are so many to choose?

    2 years ago

    Glee: It is hard to make a recommendation since I have only been using one recently, the one I mention in the video, Cloak. I used it in Japan and New Zealand. I’m happy with it.

    2 years ago

    Astrill VPN has always been good against he Great Firewall of China.
    It’s also good for P2P. For Streaminf IPVanish is excellent.

    Tripp Frohlichstein
    2 years ago

    Good stuff as usual Gary. And I recommend to anyone wanting ti learn Keynote, by Gary’s explanation at Udemy Academy. Very helpful even for those of us with decent experience using Keynote. And yes, I paid for the Udemy course.

    2 years ago

    Is Wi-Fi required in order to use a VPN?

    2 years ago

    Squafdonoboles: No, you can use a VPN with a mobile connection too (like on your iPhone) or with a wired connection. But many people use a VPN only for protection over non-encrypted Wi-Fi, which isn’t an issue with mobile or wired. But if you are looking to keep your ISP from monitoring your activity, then it is still useful even over wired or mobile connections.

    2 years ago

    I use Private Internet Access (PIA) and I am quite happy with it. There is even an option where if the VPN connection fails, the internet connection fails as well, so this is quite handy. The only thing I don’t like about PIA is the way you are given your own username usually supplied with a letter and 8 numbers (e.g.: p24675245), and it is difficult to get your own username.

    2 years ago

    I get a serious decrease in WiFi speed while using VPN: i.o. usual 100 Mbs I get something around 16-24 Mbs. What about that?

    2 years ago

    assaf: Maybe try a different VPN service.

    2 years ago

    As long as you are on the topic of secure network access, you might want to cover the topic of DNSSEC as well as the interim solution DNSCrypt because folks don’t realize that DNS requests are made in the clear over UDP. Any network sniffer can gather metadata of where you browse on the net. Thank you for your timely topic on VPN.

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