What is a VPN?

November 28th, 2018 - Get new posts sent straight to your inbox, click here.

You’ve probably heard the term VPN over the past year, as Australians are increasingly concerned about their privacy and security online. When looking for a solution to that problem, often the solution given is “get a VPN”.

So what exactly is a VPN, how does it help you online, and what should you be concerned about in the process?

What is a VPN?

“VPN” stands for “Virtual Private Network” and, spelled out like that, it’s actually quite self-explanatory. You’ll still be using the internet like normal, but even your ISP, where all your data and online interactions flows through, will no longer see what you’re doing as your data will be hidden behind the VPN.

A VPN works by downloading a piece of software. Once installed on your computer, you then open it up and turn it on. From there, when you want to go to a website, a video-sharing site, or anything else you might want to do online, the data is first sent to a server located somewhere else (usually overseas). Only then is the data sent on to the end destination, which “thinks” that the interaction is coming from this server, rather than your computer. It’s the same principle as when you are annoyed at someone and giving them the cold shoulder, but need to get a piece of information to them – you tell a friend first, who then tells the person you’re annoyed at the piece of information so they don’t know you were the one who said anything in the first place.

So, if your VPN service is hosted in America, as long as you have the VPN turned on, when you go to a website it thinks that you and your laptop are based in America – not Australia.

How does a VPN help you online?

If you’re concerned about security while online (and you should be), a VPN fulfills a number of tasks with one program:

  1. Firstly, a VPN will totally encrypt any data that you send online. Above and beyond the below protections, with a VPN you get a full encryption service built-in – which is something we should all have when using the internet, but many of us do not.
  2. It’s almost impossible to identify where your computer really is. This is where the privacy component comes in – it’s almost impossible to trace the source of your activity on the internet beyond the server where the VPN is located. And because third party eyes can’t track you down, they also can’t learn anything about you from your internet traffic.
  3. You can access content that is geoblocked. This is unrelated to security, but it’s a common reason that people buy VPNs. We’ve all had times when we’ve been unable to access a video on YouTube because it’s locked to a certain country, or wanted to use the U.S. Netflix service (there are so many more movies and shows on there!). If your VPN has a server based in America, then the service thinks you’re based in America and therefore won’t block you from accessing it.

Is there anything I should be concerned about with VPNs?

Not every VPN is created equally. There’s a lot of back-end stuff with regards to technical protocols and the like that we won’t go into in this article, but the sum of it is that some VPNs are dodgy, and if anything a bigger security risk than having nothing at all.

It’s really a case of “let the buyer beware.” There are a lot of VPNs out there that will seem remarkably cheap (or even free) when compared to other VPN services. In a lot of cases those services are actually fronts for data gathering, and they’ll sell your data on to third parties (and, in extreme cases, they may be able to sell your internet bandwidth too). Good VPNs generally cost around $10 per month, so when shopping for one, start with that as the baseline, and be sure to read reviews on each service.

The other concern that a lot of people have with VPNs is the legality of them. After all, we’ve all been conditioned to assume that accessing content from overseas is in breach of copyright and IP law locally, so if Netflix doesn’t have the rights to a particular movie in Australia, it would be illegal to access that movie in the US. Right?

In actual fact, a VPN is completely legal to use in Australia, without exception. If you are doing illegal things while connected to the VPN (for example, purchasing illicit weapons or drugs), then you’re still guilty of breaking the law, but the VPN itself is not part of the criminal activity (in addition, as a side note, while there’s the perception that it would be illegal to access American content from Australia, that’s just a PR effort by the content holders. Legally you’re perfectly entitled to do that).

You should however be aware that this is a new frontier for the law, and policymakers are always looking to play catch-up, so make sure you’re aware of any changes in legality to using VPNs. For one example, in some areas around the world VPNs are being required to provide data to law enforcement when requested. If you’re concerned about your ongoing privacy, make sure that whatever VPN you sign up to not only encrypts your data and provides you with the overseas server, but also doesn’t hold on to internet use data.

And if you’re interested in getting a VPN to gain access to new streaming sites or video content, make sure your internet speed can hold up to the increased use. Aussie Broadband offer quality nbn™ at high speeds, and won’t compromise your bandwidth. In fact, we’ve recently won a ProductReview Award as Best Internet Service Provider for 2019!

To find out if you’re eligible for the nbn™ with Aussie Broadband, click here.