Here’s the deal. I’m gonna give it to you straight, you ready? Your internet traffic is not always private. Eavesdroppers can see what websites you’re visiting and they can sometimes monitor other sensitive information that you send through the internet. But there is a way to make your connection waaaaaaaaay more private and secure! It’s called a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
First, let’s start by talking about what exactly isn’t private and who might be monitoring your internet traffic. You might think it’s just bad guys but actually there are a lot of “good guys” that spy on your traffic too. You probably even gave them permission! For example, the company you pay to provide you with internet service (your internet service provider or ISP) almost certainly monitors your internet traffic and sells information about you to marketing companies. That’s why those rainbow striped toesy socks you almost bought keep showing up in internet advertisements! ISPs can also determine when you’re watching a streaming service like Netflix and they can even tell what movie you’re watching!
You should know that there are other situations where internet hooligans can watch your internet traffic in an attempt to steal your identity, your payment information or other sensitive information. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are perfect locations for someone to do that, because these locations are almost always unsecure. For example, when you connect to public internet at an airport or a coffee shop, anyone else that is sitting nearby can just watch all of your internet traffic. If you’re sending unsecured emails, connecting to unsecured websites or sending and receiving important files, these eavesdroppers can collect whatever it is you’re sending. That’s because your account credentials, payment information, intellectual property related to your work or other sensitive data could be of value on the dark web.
So what’s this VPN thing and how does it help?
A Virtual Private Network provides a practical alternative. A VPN is exactly what it sounds like; a private communication channel that is established “virtually” over a non-private physical network like the internet. To understand how this works, take a look at the image below and then we’ll break it down.
When you set up a VPN, what you are doing is establishing an encrypted, or scrambled, connection between your computer and a “VPN server” somewhere. Sometimes we call this a VPN “Tunnel” because, metaphorically, it’s kind of like a really secure, physical tunnel through which your data will be sent. In reality the data is being encrypted. This encryption is strong enough that eavesdroppers cannot see what’s in the data at all. In fact, no one between you and the VPN server can see the data, including your ISP!
So what happens to the data when it gets to the VPN server? Good question! The VPN server is really just a middleman. If you are trying to reach a website while connected to a VPN, you send your encrypted traffic to the VPN server and then it forwards that traffic on to the website as if the traffic originated from the VPN server. That’s right, the VPN masks the origin of the data so really no one could ever tell that it came from anywhere but the VPN. It’s like when Bruce Wayne goes down to the basement of Wayne Manor, gets all dressed up, drives the Batmobile down some long underground tunnel and then pop’s out of a waterfall somewhere. Even if there was someone at the waterfall, they aren’t gonna associate the Batmobile with Bruce Wayne, because… why would they?
VPNs can also allow you to safely connect to a remote network of computers as if you are there. In that case, the VPN server is actually physically connected to a network of machines. The server can still forward your traffic on to the internet but it can also forward it to another machine in the network to which it is connected. This kind of VPN is used commonly by businesses to allow their employees to remotely connect to their protected internal networks. Take a look at the figure below for a graphical representation.
VPNs for personal Use
You can, and should, use a VPN in your personal life too. There are VPN services you can pay for that have servers all over the world. Once you sign up it will actually let you decide which server you want to route your traffic through. After that, when you connect to the VPN, your traffic will appear to originate from that same server no matter where you are in the world. It’s your “Batcave waterfall!”
Just like with the Ohio State VPN, you should connect your personal devices to your VPN service when accessing the internet from public places or networks you don’t trust.