An almost daily drumbeat of data breaches and online privacy violations has fueled public interest in VPN services such as Proton VPN. This article explains what VPNs are, what they do, and whether you need one. Its sister article, How does a VPN work?, provides a more detailed and technical overview of how a VPN handles your traffic and protects your privacy.
- What is a VPN?
- Benefits of a VPN
- Why you need a VPN – Privacy
- Why you need a VPN – Defeat censorship
- Why you need a VPN – Streaming
- Why you need a VPN – P2P file sharing
- A note on VPNs as security tools
- Frequently asked questions
What is a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) is a suite of technologies that primarily aims to improve your privacy when using the internet. It connects your computer, smartphone, or tablet to another computer, called a VPN server, via an encrypted “tunnel” that protects your data from prying eyes.
- A VPN app connects your device to a VPN server run by a VPN provider (such as Proton VPN).
- The connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted, preventing your internet service provider (ISP) from seeing the contents of your data as it travels between them.
- The VPN server sits between your ISP and the internet, blocking your ISP from seeing your online activity and preventing the websites you visit from seeing your real IP address.
- VPN providers (including Proton VPN, of course) maintain VPN servers located all over the world. This is great for bypassing censorship and “spoofing” your geographic location.
Benefits of a VPN
This deceptively simple setup is very useful. A VPN:
- Prevents your internet service provider from seeing your activity online.
- Prevents websites you visit from knowing your real IP address.
- Prevents public WiFi hosts from selling your browsing habits to advertisers.
The vast majority of mass surveillance systems in the world rely on ISPs logging their users’ browsing histories and making these logs available to government agencies. Because a VPN prevents your ISP from seeing the information you send and receive online, it also:
- Prevents untargeted mass surveillance by the NSA or your government.
Almost as a by-product of how VPNs work, using a VPN offers important additional advantages. Although these could be viewed as side effects, they’re also the main reason many people use a VPN:
- Defeats censorship, be it government censorship on political, social, or religious grounds or website blocking by your network administrator.
- Allows you to securely access streaming services
- Allows you to safely use P2P file sharing (BitTorrent).
A VPN is something of a Swiss army knife among internet tools that everyone should know how to use.
Why you need a VPN
From your ISP and government
A VPN encrypts the connection between your device and the VPN server. This prevents your ISP from seeing the contents of your data, including destination data that can usually tell it which websites and other resources you connect to on the internet.
Your VPN provider also handles DNS translation, which your ISP normally performs and logs. DNS is basically like a big phone book that translates the easy-to-remember URLs people use into the numbers computers use to identify websites and other internet resources.
DNS, for example, translates the URL www.protonvpn.com into its corresponding IP address of 184.108.40.206. Keeping logs of DNS translation is the main way that most ISPs keep tabs on what their customers do online.
The upshot of all this is that using a VPN prevents your ISP from knowing what you do on the internet. It can’t see your data, and it can’t see which websites you visit.
As we have already touched on, what your ISP doesn’t know, your government and global surveillance bodies such as the NSA and GCHQ are also unlikely to know. A VPN prevents your browsing history from being caught up in untargeted dragnet mass surveillance programs that invariably rely on the logs kept by your ISP.
A VPN will not, of course, prevent targeted surveillance, where an adversary (such as your government) is willing to expend time and resources spying on you as a known individual.
The VPN server acts as a shield that blocks the “view” both ways. Your ISP can’t see which websites you connect to (just the VPN server), and websites you connect to can’t see your real unique IP address (again, they just see the IP address of the VPN server).
This means a VPN stops the easiest-to-perform and most invasive kind of web tracking. Be aware, however, that preventing other common forms of web tracking, such as cookies and browser fingerprinting, is often beyond the scope of what a standard VPN can do.
However, Proton VPN offers NetShield ad-blocker, a DNS filtering feature that can block not only ads, but also trackers and malware.
VPNs are highly effective at defeating censorship efforts. If your country blocks content, you can simply connect to a VPN server located somewhere the content is not blocked. If your school, college, or workplace blocks content, connecting to any VPN server will bypass that block.
If you use a VPN to bypass censorship, please carefully consider the risks involved if you’re caught. Using OpenVPN or WireGuard in TCP mode can be effective at hiding VPN traffic as regular HTTPS traffic, but it can be detected by the deep packet inspection (DPI) techniques used by some governments.
It is also possible that your organization or government has blocklisted IP addresses known to belong to VPN services, in which case trying to connect to a blocked VPN server address could bring up a red flag. It’s also worth remembering that your boss might simply walk into your room at the wrong moment.
Although VPNs can defeat most censorship efforts, a powerful enough adversary (such as the Chinese government) can implement blocks that even a VPN cannot overcome. In such cases, the most effective solution may be using the Tor network with unlisted Tor servers and Tor bridges that use pluggable transports to evade deep packet inspection techniques.
For all the freedom-enabling privacy benefits a VPN can offer, one of the most popular uses for VPNs is to securely stream videos that are only available in certain countries. This allows you to access content you’ve subscribed to (and paid for) when traveling abroad.
A VPN allows you to “spoof” your location and pretend to be in a certain country, thus giving you access to services only available in that country from anywhere in the world.
Proton VPN users with a paid plan can access a wide selection of popular streaming sites using our service.
P2P file sharing
As with websites you visit, a VPN will hide your real IP address from peers when file sharing using the BitTorrent protocol. This makes using a VPN an essential precaution for torrenters. A VPN is also useful for accessing torrent sites that may be blocked by your ISP.
A note on VPNs as security tools
A good VPN service will use strong VPN protocols, robust encryption standards with perfect forward secrecy, DNS and IPv6 leak protection, in addition to strong security practices, such as keeping no logs.
This will ensure the VPN connection is secure, and your browsing is private. What it won’t do is protect your devices from hackers or malware or prevent your data from being stolen from online services you use.
When VPNs first started becoming popular (in the early 2010s), they provided effective protection against being hacked when using public WiFi hotspots. However, in large part due to the EFF’s Let’’s Encrypt campaign, almost all connections are now secured using HTTPS. So VPNs are no longer really needed to protect you from hackers when using public WiFi.
A much greater threat these days comes from “legitimate” WiFi router hosts. Many public WiFi hotspots are commercial enterprises, something made clear when you are forced to agree to a lengthy set of terms and conditions before you are allowed to use the service. These terms and conditions often allow your WiFi host to monitor your internet activity and sell your browsing history to advertising and analytics companies.
There has also been growing concern about the possibility of Airbnb hosts and the like abusing their positions of trust to spy on guests’ internet activities. In all such cases, a VPN will protect you from these invasive practices.
A VPN provides privacy while surfing the net: from your ISP, your government, and the websites you visit. Millions of people worldwide use VPN services as an invaluable tool to defeat censorship and access the open internet. It also protects you from “free” WiFi providers.
Proton VPN is a community-driven VPN service that places the privacy of our users first and foremost. We keep no logs, and what little data we do store is protected by Swiss data protection laws. All of our apps are open source and independently audited, and we support journalists and activists in the struggle for a free and open internet.
Using a trustworthy VPN provides you with a high level of privacy when online, but it doesn’t make you anonymous.
A VPN protects your privacy by preventing your ISP from knowing what you do online and the websites you visit from knowing your real IP address.
However, you’re not anonymous because your VPN provider knows who you are and is able to monitor and log your activity. Good VPN services such as Proton VPN take great care to mitigate this issue by maintaining a strict no-logs policy. (Our latest security audit results confirm our no-logs policy.)
No-logs VPNs such as Proton VPN keep no logs of users’ activities that might, at a future point, compromise their privacy.
Other than payment details, which are never tied to users’ online activities, Proton VPN keeps no logs whatsoever. And under Swiss law, we cannot be compelled to start logging.
Proton VPN can unblock a wide selection of popular streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu, by connecting to our Plus servers. You still need a valid account with these services and a valid subscription to their content to access it.
A Netflix account registered anywhere in the world is sufficient to access an unblocked Netflix site anywhere else in the world. To access Hulu, however, you need an account that is registered in the United States.
Services such as BBC iPlayer and ALL4 allow anyone to register for free from an unblocked UK IP address.
A kill switch helps to protect your privacy by disabling your internet connection if there is a problem with the VPN connection. This ensures you do not unknowingly or accidentally connect to the internet without the VPN running properly.
Proton VPN features a kill switch in all our apps. Our Windows and Linux apps also feature a permanent kill switch that prevents all internet connections unless you’re connected to one of our servers.
We can’t speak for all VPN services, but Proton VPN keeps no logs that can compromise your privacy, is based in Switzerland, home of some of the strongest data privacy laws in the world, uses only the strongest VPN protocols and encryption suites possible, and makes the source code of all our apps freely available for anyone to audit.
We have commissioned professional third-party audits of all our apps, the results of which are publicly available.
Again, we can only speak for ourselves. Proton VPN uses the WireGuard OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocols for its apps, which experts agree are the most secure VPN protocols yet devised. We also implement these at their strongest encryption settings.
Learn more about VPN protocols
Our open-source apps feature kill switches to protect you against VPN dropouts, and built-in DNS and IPv6 leak protection prevent your privacy from being compromised.
Our servers are all “hardened” with multiple security layers and failsafes, in addition to using robust physical security measures. Where security is of paramount importance, you might like to consider using our special Secure Core service for additional protection.
Many routers these days feature a built-in VPN client. Alternatively, you can replace the firmware that comes with just about any router with an open source alternative such as DD-WRT that supports VPN connections.
The advantage of using a VPN on your router is that all devices which connect to the router are protected by the VPN. The router also counts as just one VPN connection, no matter how many devices you connect to it.
If you have a dual-band router, you can set up the VPN on one band and connect devices that you don’t want to use the VPN on to the other. Proton VPN has detailed VPN router setup guides for a number of popular routers.
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