The Beginners Guide To VPNs

Virtual Private Networks

Online personal integrity is quickly becoming increasingly important to people. The ability to freely express opinions, avoid censorship and surveillance have been brought in to the spotlight lately. Some would say it’s fundamental to an open and free democratic society. Luckily, there are tools that enable this and the VPN technology is one of them. 

How Does It Work?

It’s actually pretty simple. Whenever you connect to the internet the vpn will establish a secure connection between you and the vpn servers.  All traffic between you and the vpn is securely encrypted and then routed on to the internet.

This ensures two main things:

Hidden IP address & geographical location

A VPN hides your IP address and your geographical location. As far as the internet knows, you can appear to be from anywhere you want.

Secure connection & protected data

A VPN will apply strong encryption to your data. This ensures that you can browse the web safely and that your data can not be monitored by anyone.

6 Awesome Reasons to Use VPNs

Access Geo-Blocked Content
Secure Wi-Fi Hotspots
Circumvent Censorship
Hide Your True Location
Improved Internet Security
Secure Peer-2-Peer BitTorrent

Why Are VPN’s Useful?

Access Geo-Blocked Content

One feature that draws a lot of users to VPNs is to circumvent restrictions due to region. Some streaming services show content dependent on where you are located. This works because you can be located via your IP address, of course by using a VPN you can bypass that and thereby enable blocked content.

Secure Wi-Fi hotspot usage

When you connect to a public wi-fi you can never be sure of what is going on with that connection. It is a common practise by hackers to create fake wi-fi’s that can seem to be safe, when in fact it is not. By connecting to it you are making it very easy for them to intercept your traffic and stealing your data. Using a VPN will prevent this from being possible and even if you happen to connect to a rouge wi-fi – you are safe.

Geographical restriction bypassing

Since your traffic is passing through the VPN tunnel before it is connected to the internet, your IP address seen by the internet will be given to you by the VPN server. By doing this, your real IP address is anonymised. This means that if you are physically located in China, but is connected via an U.S VPN server, the internet will see that you are connected from the U.S and therefor bypassing Chinese restrictions.

Hiding your true location

If you for some reason need to hide your location, may it be political or because of integrity reasons, VPNs enable that. 

Peer-2-Peer BitTorrent

Peer-2-Peer sharing makes it fast and easy to share large files and BitTorrent is the protocol that enable it. When your are P2P sharing using torrents your IP address is visible to anyone and therefor your privacy is at risk. VPNs prevents that.

Anonymised traffic

A VPN will provide a degree of anonymity. Your internet service provider can only see that you are connecting to the VPN server but wherever your traffic goes after that is made invisible to their eyes. Anyone else looking at your traffic such as hackers or trackers cannot intercept your traffic inside the VPN tunnel which protects you from many types of attacks.

VPN Weaknesses

Speed

The fact that your traffic is routed through the VPN server before reaching the internet will slow your connection and increase latency. How much latency will be dependent on how much other traffic that server has to handle and the technical capabilities of it. In other words, the latency will vary between VPN providers and is dependent on their capabilities. Choosing local VPN servers will usually create less latency.

Will not provide complete anonymity

A VPN cannot be used by itself and be expected to provide complete anonymity. Whenever you connect to a VPN server, your real IP address is revealed to the VPN provider, which can be linked directly back to you. If a high level of anonymity is important VPN’s should only be used in complement to other anonymising services such as Tor or by nesting VPN’s. Nesting VPN’s is the process of linking them and thereby creating additional ”hops” which will make tracking you much more difficult. This is essentially what the Tor browser is doing. 

While we're on the subject of weaknesses...

How Can You Be Tracked? Even Though Using A VPN

VPNS are not perfect and there are ways for anyone with a lot of resources to track you.

For example, by signing up for a VPN service you are creating a money trail and a connection between you and the VPN provider is made, therefore, you are not anonymous. Bypass this problem by using cryptocurrencies. Some VPN providers accept cryptocurrencies and even cash as payment.

There are other advanced methods that can be used to link your traffic to your identity.

Such as:

Traffic confirmation

Even though your actual data is encrypted, your traffic can still be seen and with the use of advanced analysis be linked to other traffic and thereby linked to you. Nation states or resourceful agencies such as the NSA with international reach will be able to monitor your traffic and even though this is very heavy on resources, it can be done.

Your traffic might be logged by the VPN provider

Even though most good VPN providers have a strict ”no-logging” policy your traffic still has to pass through their servers – if you trust that company is up to you. Businesses in most countries will be forced by law to release data if they are court-ordered to do so.

VPN’s can be blocked by websites

Even though many VPN providers promise that their servers are bypassing content restrictions, it is still likely that you get blocked. This is because the usage of VPN’s to bypass such content has become very mainstream and known by the content providers.

DNS leaks

Whenever your browser tries to connect to a website it has to translate web domains such as www.google.com into an IP address. This is what the DNS server does (Domain Name System). If your computer is set to DHCP, which means that IP addresses are set automatically by your router, it also uses the DNS server provided by your ISP. Now, when using a VPN this setting can cause a DNS leak. This prevents the VPN from completely hiding your IP address and thereby revealing your true IP.

To prevent this from happening you can look for the DNS IP address of your VPN provider and enter it manually in your IP settings. 

To find out if you are suffering from DNS leaks, go to https://ipleak.net while connected to your VPN. If your true location is shown, you have a DNS leak.

What To Look For?

Strict ”no logging” policy

A nog-log policy means that even if the VPN provider is court ordered to provide data, they will not be able to.

Jurisdiction of VPN servers

If your VPN provider is based out of a location with strict data retention laws, this means that authorities have a greater possibility to access your data.

Kill switch

Sometimes the secure VPN connection can fail but data packets still get transmitted, which means that you can be de-anonymised. A kill switch will automatically kill your connection if this happens.

DNS leak prevention

A good VPN provider should include a DNS leak prevention feature, which ensures that the DNS processing is handled by their own DNS servers instead of those of the ISP.

OpenVPN or SSTP protocol

VPN protocols describes the technicalities and rules of how data transmission and encryption is done. OpenVPN is largely considered to be the most secure protocol.

Strong encryption

A strong encryption policy is super important. Look for AES-256, Cipher Block Chaining, Elliptic Cure, Perfect Forward Secrecy.



Click HERE for an in depth guide on encryption.

Anonymous payment

Paying with cryptocurrencies will provide an extra layer of anonymity and prevents money trails. Sign up by using a ”burner e-mail” account.

What To Stay Away From?

Bandwidth limitations
Data caps
Data logging
Server limitations
No customer care
Ads and popups

Free VPNs

A free provider can never offer a sufficient level of privacy in terms of the technical features needed for doing so and will also deliver worse performance and customer care. Free VPNs are never recommended by me.

How To Set Up VPNs

For most purposes it is very easy to download, install and get surfin’ through the VPN within minutes. Most VPN clients will be pre configured for you to start using right away after installing them and all you have to do is to click connect. However, if anonymity is important to you make sure to go through the following steps:

Disable IPv6

You are most likely to be using IPv4 as of now, so the easiest way to prevent IPv6 leaks is to disable it. This can be done in your network settings.

Learn more about IP addresses HERE

Check for DNS leaks

If anonymity is truly important to you, then you need to make a habit of always visiting sites like https://ipleak.net and check for leaks before engaging in activities.

Configure DNS server

If your VPN is working correctly it should automatically be using the DNS server of the VPN providers. Sometimes that can fail though. The solution is to enter the DNS address manually in your network settings. Ask your VPN provider what the address to their DNS server is.

VPN Through Routers

The most common way to use VPN’s is to install the software on your device, may it be a laptop or smartphone. The other option is to setup your router for VPN usage. The main advantage of this is that all devices connected to your router will be encrypted and sent through the secure VPN tunnel, including smart TV’s, playstation and such.

However, this might affect the router performance negatively due to insufficient hardware specs. If this is the case your only option is to buy a faster router. So, there is nothing special with a VPN router compared to a regular router except that it might be pre-configured and have the necessary tech specs. Your router most like has VPN options but you may find that speeds be reduced.

Ending Notes

Security usually means more complicated, time consuming and a general hassle but VPNs are a great tool that increase security and enable privacy without being any of that.

VPNs are for everyone and should be used by everyone.

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