You may have heard of something called a VPN… You may know that this stands for Virtual Private Network VPN. You may even have used one to access the US version of Netflix (which has an insanely larger library of titles than most other countries) or websites blocked in your country. While these are indeed examples of virtual private networks VPN, they do not tell the whole story. In this article we explore virtual private networks, their inception, how they work, and how they are used.
First, a little background on networks. You may recall that LAN stands for local area network, and it is a type of computer network where connected devices are in the same physical location. Controlling information over a LAN is easy because you can restrict access to it, whether by a physical cabled connection or through authentication for wireless connection. If a LAN is restricted to a specific entity or organization, it is called an intranet.
Businesses and governments have intranets to allow communication over closed networks. This is important for the security of transmitted information, as interception could have dire consequences. The problem is, they also often need to securely communicate with personnel or other sites that are geographically remote from the LAN. Sending the information over the regular internet would be an invitation for competitors, enemies, and hackers to acquire it. One way to remedy this was to extend a cable to that remote site, ensuring that nobody would have access to the information transmitted within. The problem with that – as you can imagine – was the astronomical cost required to extend cables over long distances, the risks of cable breakage and failure, and the fact that it can only be extended to one location… what happens if the person is on the move, accessing from several different locations? A solution was needed to be able to securely transmit information to and from the organization’s intranet, without being visible to the public internet. This was what fuelled the creation of virtual private networks VPN.
VPNs basically create a secure tunnel over the internet for information to travel along, which can only be accessed by the sender and recipient.
Information on the internet is sent in the form of packets, bits of data that have a sender’s address and a recipient’s address, showing where they’re coming from and where they’re going. What a VPN does is hide the packets of data inside other packets, so that the information in the inner packet (the payload) is invisible to the public. This process is called encapsulation, and it can also hide the sender and recipient addresses so that no information about the payload can be obtained. The external packet will actually have different addresses, which masks the location of the sender, and can make it appear as if they are somewhere else.
Depending on what is being connected, VPNs come in one of the following types:
In order to create the tunnel, the VPN requires a server to handle the transmission of information, called a network access server (NAS) or remote access server (RAS), and a VPN client at the remote location to encapsulate the information and send it to the server. VPN clients can be standalone proprietary software purchased from 3rd parties, or they can be part of the operating system on devices, which can be set up by IT professionals. In the case of a remote-access VPN, the client is on the user’s computer. In the case of site-to-site VPN, the client can be on a server that handles connections from all users at the remote site.
More sophisticated virtual private networks VPN can have dedicated devices that carry out the roles mentioned above and others.
So far, we’ve been highlighting the original, official, and business uses of virtual private networks VPN, but it didn’t take long for the technology to spread into the general commercial realm as well. People wanted to be able to hide their identity, information, and location from any prying eyes, browsing the internet anonymously, which VPNs can help them achieve. Another reason for public demand for VPNs was that many countries imposed restrictions on what their citizens could access via the internet. Through a VPN a user could basically “tunnel out of their country” and make it seem like they’re browsing the restricted website from another location.
While people might have thought of virtual private networks VPN as dodgy, they do – as we’ve illustrated – have important real-world uses. Businesses and governments rely on VPNs to allow private connections to remote personnel and sites. The general public also use them to browse anonymously and access geographically restricted content. There will – however – always be ethical and security issues regarding the use of VPNs. Should users bypass the restrictions of their countries? Can countries ban the use of VPNs? Do VPNs keep track of and store users’ browsing activity? Should they relinquish that data when asked? With the ongoing advancement of new technology, you should constantly be learning about the capabilities and implications of emerging tech in order to safeguard yourself against malice. Browse responsibly.
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