VPN: The acronym that makes you less hackable

In recent years, it’s been looking like governments across the world are hellbent on disrupting the use of telecommunications in one way or another.

So this week’s column might come in handy when you can’t afford any downtime caused by overzealous authorities.

As a result of taxation or outright blockage of the Internet using firewalls, millions of users have had to do without their favourite social media platforms.

This is, at the worst, a mild annoyance for most subscribers. However, for someone running a business whose main means of client interaction is social media, this can be crushing.

But there’s an antidote.

The three-letter acronym VPN is one you’re likely to be familiar with – it’s been bandied about quite a bit given the rising interest in Internet security. But how many of us really know its meaning or how it works? Let’s get down to demystifying it.

What it means

First, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network.

To appreciate what a VPN does, you’ll need to consider how the Internet works. In your normal browsing, once you input the address of the website you want to visit, the browser sends the request through your Internet service provider (ISP) to what’s called a DNS server.

The work of the DNS server is to translate the human readable address to an Internet protocol (IP) address, which is the ‘residence’ of the server that has your requested web page.

This is the process that authorities tend to interrupt by liaising with Internet providers to block communication to a given server. This creates a virtual wall commonly known as a firewall.

How it works

VPNs basically subvert this process by encoding Internet communication in a way that ISPs can’t decipher. This means that they can neither figure out the content of the traffic nor can they know where the traffic is headed.

This traffic is then routed through a private server that decodes the encrypted communication and makes it such that the traffic emanates from it and not from the original web surfer. This gives you the freedom to use the Internet privately and securely by keeping your data safe from prying eyes. Just don’t try to do anything illegal under the cover of a VPN.

Another benefit of the private network is that it allows you to get around geolocation blocks, where some sites block access to their content based on the location information embedded in your traffic.

The VPNs available on mobile platforms and as desktop applications include Tunnelbear, NordVPN, and Thunder VPN, which are the most common free examples. Most other VPNs charge a nominal subscription fee, with some allowing a few megabytes per month of free use.  

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