What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a secure network that enables internet users to hide their Internet Protocol (IP) address to securely browse the web and access content from other countries. A succinct description of what is VPN is it enables people to access the internet securely while remaining anonymous online.

VPNs are often required because Wi-Fi networks can be insecure, which could risk users exposing their personal information to cyber criminals. The VPN hides a user’s location and online activity and retains their privacy through encrypted secure tunnels.

A VPN does that by disguising the user’s online location, making it appear as if they are connecting to the internet from another country. This enables a user to get around geographical restrictions on streaming websites and watch content from different countries. They are also able to protect themselves on untrusted Wi-Fi networks, gain online anonymity, and torrent files securely.

How a VPN Works

A VPN works by routing a device's internet connection through a private service rather than the user's regular internet service provider (ISP). The VPN acts as an intermediary between the user getting online and connecting to the internet by hiding their IP address.

Using a VPN creates a private, encrypted tunnel through which a user’s device can access the internet while hiding their personal information, location, and other data. All network traffic is sent through a secure connection via the VPN. This means that any data transmitted to the internet is redirected to the VPN rather than from the user’s computer. 

When the user connects to the web using their VPN, their computer submits information to websites through the encrypted connection created by the VPN. The VPN then forwards that request and sends a response from the requested website back to the connection.

How Does a VPN Work in Practice?

A VPN masks a user’s true location to the one they set their VPN to. This enables them to access content or websites typically restricted to that region. For example, a user in the U.S. can set their location to the United Kingdom and watch content from streaming websites aimed at British audiences. A U.S. citizen can also continue streaming their favorite shows even when they are away from the country on holiday.

Let us take a look at some of the common uses of VPNs.

Protecting Browsing History

ISPs and web browsers can track everything a user does while connected to the internet. They also keep a history of the websites users visit and tie that information to the IP address used, then often issue targeted advertisements related to that search information or even sell users’ browsing data. Keeping these details secret can be really important to people, especially if they are using a shared device or web browser.

A VPN enables users to keep search information—such as medical conditions, required surgery or treatment, travel plans, or even gift idea research—private and prevents their ISP and web browser from serving related ads.

Securing IP Address and Location Data

An IP address is the internet’s equivalent of the return address on a handwritten letter. Therefore, anyone that knows a user’s IP address can access the information they have searched for on the internet and where they were when they searched for it. Furthermore, a user’s search history can be viewed if they connect to a web browser on a public or work computer.

VPNs use IP addresses that do not belong to a user, which enables them to connect to and browse the web anonymously while maintaining their privacy online. Using a VPN also enables users to prevent their search history data from being collected, viewed, and sold.

Hiding Streaming Location

Streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix offer different content to users located in different countries. Using a VPN enables a streaming customer to access the content intended for people living in different countries regardless of their actual location. 

It can also enable a user to access a streaming subscription they have in their home country while traveling. For example, a user on holiday in another country could use a VPN to set their location to the U.S. and stream their favorite sports team’s live game.

Protecting Devices

A VPN is also crucial to protecting users’ devices, such as computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets, from being intercepted by cyber criminals. Bad actors often target devices that connect to the internet on specific networks, such as a public Wi-Fi network. A VPN helps a user mask their device’s location and protect the data on it from being seen by a potential hacker.

Ensuring Internet Freedom

A VPN enables people to protect themselves from government surveillance by hiding their browsing history. As long as their VPN provider does not log browsing history, which some do, users can rest assured that their freedom on the internet is protected.

VPN Encryption—All You Need To Know

"Do VPNs really work?" is a fair question, and anyone asking should know they do. VPNs use encryption to keep internet users secure and their data private. A VPN works based on encryption, which hides the true meaning of information. This ensures data cannot be read unless someone unlocks it with a password, known as an encryption key. When using a VPN, the encryption key protecting a user’s data and web activity is only known by their computer and VPN server. 

VPN services use various types of encryption processes, but encryption, in a nutshell, typically creates a secure tunnel in which the user’s data is encoded. Data is encrypted into unreadable code as it moves between the user's computer and the VPN server. The device connects to the local network the VPN is connected to, which masks the user’s IP address as belonging to a server from the VPN provider. 

VPN Protocols

All VPN services use VPN protocols to ensure they provide users with the fastest and most secure internet connection. VPN protocols use a combination of encryption and transmission standards to determine how a user’s data is transported between their device and the VPN server.

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

PPTP is one of the oldest protocols still active on the internet. Created by Microsoft, it uses the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) control channel and Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE) tunneling protocol. It relies on the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP), which is a Layer 2 communications protocol directly between two routers, to implement security functionalities. 

PPTP is fast and simple to deploy but only really applicable to people using older Windows operating systems. It also has several well-known security issues, so any VPN that only uses PPTP should be avoided.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)

This protocol combines PPTP with the Layer 2 Forwarding (L2F) tunneling protocol. It strengthens the data tunnel provided by PPTP but does not provide users with encryption or privacy capabilities. As a result, the protocol is typically bundled with a security protocol such as Internet Protocol security (IPsec).

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)

SSTP is a VPN tunnel created by Microsoft and is a much more secure option. It transports PPP traffic through the secure sockets layer/transport layer security (SSL/TLS) channel, which provides encryption, key negotiation, and traffic integrity checking. As such, only the two parties that transmit the data are able to decode it. Using this over the TCP port 443 ensures that SSTP can travel through most firewalls and proxy servers.

Internet Key Exchange Version 2 (IKEv2)

IKEv2 handles request and response actions to ensure traffic is secure and authenticated, usually using IPsec. It establishes the security attributes of the device and server, then authenticates them, and agrees which encryption methods to use. It supports 256-bit encryption and allows the use of popular ciphers such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), Camellia, and ChaCha20. IKEv2 is mostly used to secure mobile devices, in which it is particularly effective.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is widely considered the best open-source VPN technology available. The free software uses pre-shared certificates, secret keys, and usernames and passwords to authenticate every device or server. It uses the open secure sockets layer (OpenSSL) encryption library and TLS, in addition to a custom protocol utilizing SSL/TLS for key exchange. OpenVPN offers the same protection as established protocols but on a wider scale.

How Fortinet Can Help

Fortinet enables organizations to build secure networks and implement their cloud-first strategies with the FortiGate IPsec/SSL VPN solutions. These scalable, high-performance VPNs ensure organizations maintain consistent security policies and access control across all their applications, devices, and users, regardless of their location. 

The FortiGate VPNs provide secure communication between multiple endpoints and networks through IPsec and SSL technologies. This ensures they protect data while it is in motion at high speed, which helps organizations and users to not fall victim to data breaches or threats like man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.