Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) come in many forms. A physical private network is usually any network in which computer connect through routers and Wi-Fi points in a way that data does not get transmitted over the open internet.
Many schools and universities use such local area networks to share files exclusively with their students, and companies might use them to connect machines securely and for protection against outside hackers.
In short, a local area network allows you to connect devices with a physical set of cables and routers and, with a firewall, shield them from spies and hackers on the open internet.
A virtual private network, on the other hand, uses encryption to achieve the same effect over the open internet. A set of computers are bound together with virtual cables to share resources and delegate access—all while evading spies and hackers.
Consumer and Corporate VPNs
There are mainly two types of VPNs: Corporate and consumer VPNs. Corporate VPNs are used by large companies and universities to share information securely over large distances. Some companies have policies that require their remote workers to always use the company VPN. Sensitive resources are only made available to those inside of the company premises, either physically or by virtue of the VPN.
Consumer VPNs, while technologically similar, have a very different purpose. These VPN networks never connect participants with each other or use the network to make resources exclusively available.
Instead, consumers pay a subscription fee to use the network infrastructure which, unlike in a corporate VPN, will allow them to select a server from a large pool of geographically diverse servers. The network sets up an encrypted connection between their computer or mobile phone and this server. The connection between the user’s device and the server is encrypted and only exits to the open internet once it reaches the server. To any of the services the user is using (or any other observer), it appears as if the user is at the location of the server, instead of wherever they might be at the moment.
Various reasons for using a consumer VPN
Privacy while surfing the web
As the connection between the user and the server is encrypted, a local government or the owner of the Wi-Fi or mobile phone network is unable to intercept or analyze any of the data sent by the user.
Websites and services used by the user are no longer able to see the IP of the user, which means they are less likely to be able to infer the user’s location and identity.
This increases the privacy of the user while using the open internet.
Censorship on the network or national level
Local networks, which can include public Wi-Fi spots and your internet connection at home, may come with restrictions, such as the ability to access adult entertainment or gambling sites, social media, and even international news sources.
A VPN allows the user to circumvent these blocks by picking a server location in a free and open jurisdiction, and surfing the internet as if they were physically located there. Because the local authority is unable to surveil and intercept the data packages, they are unable to enforce their censorship regimes.
Stream legal content
Sometimes it’s not the local government that restricts you from accessing content, but the content provider. Notices like ‘This content is not available in your region” are familiar to anybody who tries to consume their media subscriptions (that they pay for!) while traveling.
A VPN allows you to virtually place yourself back in your home jurisdiction, from where you will be able to enjoy your streaming services.
Poorly configured networks
While not intentionally trying to block you from access, certain features or resources and some network administrators configure their Wi-Fi spots poorly, meaning you might have a difficult time accessing some sites or running some applications.
As long as a VPN connection can be established, the user will not have to worry about poor configurations on the local network, as all data is first routed to the VPN server before it accesses the open internet.
A VPN is especially attractive for frequent travelers
For somebody traveling the world and constantly switching between insecure and poorly configured Wi-Fi access points and foreign countries with unfamiliar censorship regimes, a VPN provides an easy and safe solution.
Not everybody uses a VPN for the same reason. For some, accessing streaming services from abroad is more important than online privacy, while others want protection from insecure networks in their hotels and airport lounges.
Luckily, a good VPN covers all bases.