Ah, VPNs. These days it seems as if many people are using them. Unfortunately, most of those folks don't really understand what they are doing and I suspect many of them don't really need a VPN. If you are going to use one, like any tool, you ought understand a little bit about its purpose and how it works. What do VPNs do well? What are they not so good at?
"VPN" is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. VPNs are a component of Privacy-as-a-Service (PRaas). VPNs offer anonymity through obfuscation of your internet connection. The VPN acts as a proxy, redirecting your internet traffic so it appears to be coming from a different IP address.
A VPN is a virtual point-to-point network connection between a local host device and a remote host device. What is the purpose a VPN? To allow the secure exchange of data between two connected devices remotely located from one another. Why are VPNs used? VPNs mask the origin of network traffic, the content of network traffic, or both. At times, you may hear a VPN referred to as a tunnel, STunnel (Secure Tunnel), or Virtual Tunnel Interface (VTI). You may also hear the term "tunneling." VPNs can be thought of as creating a secure wrapper or “tunnel” that secures data traversing it.
What is a VPN "Provider?"
A VPN "provider" is an organization that implements a VPN as a service. A VPN service consists of a client software solution (compatible with a user's hardware and operating system) and a remote VPN server. The client software connects to the server in order to establish a secure VPN connection. This connection then acts as a portal to the Internet. Any traffic passed through the VPN connection will appear to the outside world as if it originated from the VPN's IP address and physical location. Thus, to some extent the VPN client user is able to conceal their true identity and physical location.
Most VPNs are dynamic. The IP address you establish a connection to when you initiate the VPN (inbound connection), and the IP address you're assigned when using the VPN are dynamic, meaning they change every time you re-connect to the VPN.
Every time you reconnect to the VPN, your outbound IP address will likely be different than the last time you were connected.
A static VPN has an inbound and/or outbound IP address that doesn't change. It is "static" or remains the same. Static VPNs are useful when having a consistent IP address on one end or the other of the connection (or both ends) is advantageous and the end user is willing to reduce their level of privacy and security in exchange for convenience.
Dynamic vs. Static: Which Is Better?
You can read more about the pros and cons of dynamic vs. static IP addresses in general here.
Even when using a VPN, it is still possible for information about your connection to be intercepted by 3rd parties. Care must be taken to implement a VPN properly and choose a VPN provider with a strong reputation for maintaining your privacy. Not all VPN service providers are not equal with regards to the protection of your privacy. Unfortunately, in the public VPN world there are a number of companies who are either technically incompetent, attempt to brush over or conceal their weaknesses, or outright lie regarding the sanctity of their VPN services.
Choosing a VPN provider is a very important step in the process, and one that should not be taken lightly. The more one is concerned with privacy or anonymity, the fewer good choices there are, depending on the level of protection you want or need. For example, a media server normally does not require an extreme level of anonymity. In that use case, the primary purpose of a VPN is likely to be hiding your identity when downloading bit torrents. By masking your true IP address, you'll be able to remain anonymous. It's not necessary to use a VPN with newsgroups because the nature of Usenet is already decentralized to the point of providing anonymity by design. On-the-other-hand, if you are a political dissident residing in a country known for heavy handed state-sanctioned monitoring of internet traffic (e.g. China), your situation will behoove you to choose a VPN provider with a verifiable robust infrastructure and maintenance.
You'll find more details about various aspects of VPNs at the articles linked below:
- How VPNs Work
- VPN (Virtual Private Network) F.A.Q.
- Do You Really Need (or Want) a VPN?
- Choosing the Right VPN Provider
- Reviewing the VPN Reviewers
- The Great Global VPN Swindle