VPNs are perhaps the most misunderstood technology on Earth today. This is largely the fault of VPN providers and the army of shills in their employ who champion them as the one button solution to online privacy and security. This is a massive oversimplification.
That’s not to say there are no benefits to using a VPN, but understanding “the why” requires a little nuance. So let’s talk about what a VPN actually does, how they can and can’t protect you online and four facts we bet you didn’t know about VPN.
- The Internet is Already Encrypted and in 70% – 85% Cases VPN Encryption is Redundant
A couple decades ago the internet was a different, more trusting place. All communication was sent as HTTP. Your passwords, along with all the other information you sent traveled over the public internet as clear text. Anyone who intercepted your traffic could read everything you sent and received. As the world’s technological literacy increased and software that could say listen to everything on a public WiFi network became available for anyone to download the internet adopted an encrypted version of HTTP, called HTTPS. This new protocol, exchanged a key pair with the site you’re visiting through a chain of trusted intermediaries called Certificate Authorities, and it works a treat.
When VPN providers talk about military grade encryption, it’s mainly just marketing because HTTPS encryption is likely better than what the provider is using.
Here’s the caveat; while recent studies have found that around 80% of websites use HTTPS, that’s not every website. Far from it. Just the other day, I was on the Turkish Embassy’s website trying to apply for a visa, and it didn’t use HTTP. The site expected passport photos, bank statements, and easily enough details to steal an identity, and it didn’t use HTTPS.
Streaming sites are another great example. They rarely use HTTPS. On these websites a VPN is useful, especially if you’re sharing your WiFi with housemates, or there is a shared network for your building.
- Your ISP Can Tell You’re Using A VPN
Your ISP can’t tell what sites you are visiting, or anything else you are doing online. All they know is that they are routing traffic to a remote server, however they can likely tell that the server is a VPN. There are lists of known IP addresses that belong to VPN providers, the handshake process differs between HTTPS traffic and VPN providers, the packet is likely a different size, a lot of data goes to a single IP address, and there are other more technical ways to determine you’re using a VPN which we won’t get into.
In short, yes your ISP could work out you’re using a VPN, but it’s unlikely they’d care enough to check. And if they did, there’s nothing they could find out. In Belarus, China, Iraq, North Korea, Oman, Russia, and the U.A.E, VPNs are either illegal or banned selectively, but if you’re from one of these countries you wouldn’t be reading this article, so there’s nothing to worry about.
- The Main Reason People Use VPNs is to Watch Geo Blocked Content
You likely already knew this but the main reason people use VPNs is to watch geo blocked content. Geo-blocked means that it’s not available in all regions. US Netflix has hundreds of titles that aren’t available in other countries. Then there’s entire services like Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, SkySports, and more that aren’t available indiscriminately around the world.
Why? Archaic broadcasting laws left over from the era of the living room televisions lag behind our fiber optic powered entertainment on demand reality. You can keep waiting for laws to catch up, or you can get a VPN and upgrade your internet connection with the click of a button. You can even get a VPN on your phone these days, for example surfshark for ios.
- VPNs can stop Your ISP Throttling Your Internet Connection
This isn’t much of a problem in the developed world, but in emerging markets without laws that protect consumers, ISPs limit heavy users.
This practice is rampant in Asia and Africa. It’s well documented that ISPs monitor torrent traffic and slow it down. Their motivations for doing so are clear. The more people they can provide an internet connection to at the lowest cost point, the more money they make. Your ISP is a business first and foremost.
Your internet connection is shared. It might not be shared in your house, but outside your house there’s a splitter that connects the cable which runs to your house to all the other cables that service your street.
A few kilometers down the road there’s another box where all the internet traffic for the neighborhood/suburb/city is aggregated. Large parts of the internet is stored on servers overseas so eventually the internet traffic for your entire country travels under the ocean to data centers to retrieve international sites, and participate in steam lobbies. Your ISP pays for every kb of data that goes on this undersea cable through IP transit agreements. So you see how it’s in your ISPs best interest to slow down heavy users.
VPNs aren’t the push button solution to internet privacy and security that many believe them to be. What they are is the easiest way to view geo-blocked content and avoid ISP throttling. It’s true that they hide your IP address from sites that you are visiting, and hide the sites that you are visiting from your ISP, but beyond that take all claims VPN providers make with a grain of salt.