How Does a VPN Work?

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how vpn works

Imagine you are having a conversation with a friend in a public place. Suddenly, you feel that you need more privacy. So, you both go to your house and continue your conversation. But you suspect that your neighbors might be hearing you. So, you use cryptic language to talk. You both talk for a little longer and then your friend leaves.

This can be considered a simple analogy of the workings of a VPN, which stands for a virtual private network. In this scenario, the world (i.e., the public place) is the Internet, your house a VPN tunnel, and the cryptic language encryption. Because you took some measures – to move to a private place and change your communication language – you were able to ensure privacy and avoid interception. A VPN works the same way, albeit with some more moving parts and technology.

Let’s take a look at how real VPNs work.

Components of a VPN

To understand how a VPN works, we will first list down the components that make it.

  • A public network such as the Internet
  • A VPN tunnel created by a tunneling protocol such as OpenVPN, IPSec, or WireGuard
  • A data encryptor
  • A VPN client i.e., a software application that will facilitate the connection
  • VPN servers that act as exit nodes

When these components come together, a virtual private network is created. Such a private network can be used to communicate without the fear of interception, stay anonymous while surfing the web, and unblock websites with geographical restrictions. Although VPNs were mostly meant for business purposes back in the day, they have become an integral part of today’s digital life for most Internet users. The coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in several people around the world to work remotely, has again highlighted the significance of a VPN.

How a VPN Works

A point-to-point connection is created by a tunneling protocol to facilitate data exchange. This connection, known as a VPN tunnel in online security parlance, allows participants (you and your friend, for example) to communicate without disclosing their identities and IP addresses. Therefore, if a hacker tries to intercept your connection, they will be clueless about your identity. The IP addresses shown will be that of a distant location i.e., the VPN server which acts as an exit node for the entirety of the connection.

This is how VPNs allow you to mimic a specific city’s or country’s IP address and unblock location-based restrictions on websites.

But, how is the data protected, you may ask?

Well, that is where the encryption standard comes into the picture. Depending upon the tunneling protocol, the exchanged data may or may not be encrypted. If it is encrypted at your end, the same will be decrypted at the receiver’s end to complete the communication securely. This happens at such a faster rate and so much more happens in the background that any interception is effectively blocked.

You should know that the strength and efficacy of a VPN largely depend on the protocol being used. Everything else is pretty much secondary. 

This is a simplified take on how a VPN works. As we mentioned above, a lot more happens in the background as you switch on your VPN and surf the web. 

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