How Does A VPN Work?

Last updated on June 17th, 2022 by Alex Mitchell. Filed under WordPress Security


In recent years Virtual Private Networks (VPN) have become increasingly popular with both business and home users. And it’s reasonable to assert that this interest in VPN solutions has been amplified by the various security and privacy issues that have been highlighted in the mass media.

Yet many people, even those who use VPNs on a regular basis don’t know how the technology works. So in this article, we’re going to take you through everything you need to know about how VPNs operate.

How VPN works

The encryption key

The central process with any VPN is the encryption of data. VPN software encrypts all the information sent out by your computer. This means that your Internet service provider, and the wider Internet, cannot intercept the traffic that you are transmitting over the worldwide web.

Encryption works by applying a secret code to the data in order to transform it in an undecipherable form. The encrypted information can then be decrypted by a system that has the same key (pre-shared secret key). This means that VPN networks are extremely difficult to crack.

Most modern VPN systems, including NordVPN and Witopia now offer AES-256 encryption. This level of encryption is practically impossible to breakdown. The security keys used to encrypt the data are hugely complex and have been the subject of several pieces of doctoral research.

Transmission of data over a VPN

When you “sign in” to your VPN service, a virtual tunnel is created between your computer and the VPN operator, or server. Therefore when you browse the internet, the requests and data are encrypted on your computer and sent to the VPN server through this virtual tunnel. Thanks to this tunnel, no one can know what websites you are browsing, and what data you are sending and receiving, not even your internet service provider.

When the VPN server receives your data, it then decrypts it and send is to the online destination. Therefore the VPN server is the source of the request, and not your computer. This is how your privacy and anonymity are protected.

VPN application showing the locations of the VPN Servers

The Purpose of a VPN service

The three main benefits of a VPN service are:

  • Extending the private network over the internet (mostly for business use)
  • the encryption of transmitted data
  • the hiding of your physical location.

The VPN server acts as a middleman, which effectively connects to the Internet on your behalf. Note that if you login to a website which keeps a record of all changes in a WordPress audit log (audit trail), the site owner will still be able to see that you logged in and what changes you have done. However the source IP address from where you are logging in will be that of the VPN server.

Legal limitations of VPN services

Although VPNs have become commonplace, there are legal and policy limitations affecting what can be achieved with the technology. While VPN enhances privacy considerably, the laws of the nation in which the VPN service is located can have a significant impact on the way it operates.

For example, some governments might restrict which protocols can be used. A protocol is like a set of rules that determines how the data is transmitted and encrypted. The most common protocols used for VPNs are PPTP, IPsec over L2TP, SSTP, IKEV2, SSL and OpenVPN.

The most sophisticated and sought-after VPN services will utilize as many of these protocols as possible, but there can be some legal restrictions depending on the territories involved. This is a controversial area, but some countries do not allow certain protocols, meaning that they cannot be offered by VPN services.

In some nations, the legislation might also force VPN companies to share user activity records. This privacy picture is further clouded by the international agreements some countries might have in place in regards to sharing information. Nonetheless, it is possible to find VPN services established in countries that don’t have such international agreement in place.

The different protocols used for VPNs

Let’s break down each of these protocols:

PPTP is an abbreviation of Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol. It is one of the oldest protocols that remains in use with the contemporary Internet. Originally designed by Microsoft, PPTP is very easy to implement. However, PPTP is criticized for offering poor standards of security. It is certainly advisable to avoid any provider which only offers this protocol.

L2TP: sometimes also referred to as IPsec refers to Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol. This protocol was originally based on the PPTP and Cisco’s L2F protocols. It uses keys in order to establish a secure connection but has been criticized for unsafe execution. Some reports suggest that it is possible to breakdown L2TP.

SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol) is another protocol from Microsoft, which uses SSL/TLS encryption. This protocol makes use of symmetric-key cryptography, which is considered a particularly secure solution. It enables only the two parties involved in a data transfer to decode information. SSTP has established itself as a major technology in this niche, along with IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange, Version 2), which is another Microsoft product.

OpenVPN is considered to be the best available and most secure. It uses a sophisticated SSL/TLS setup. Also, many of the best minds in technology contribute to it since it is an open source project. This means that OpenVPN is continuously improving, making it the most versatile and secure protocol.

Tunneling in VPN

The final important aspect of VPN technology’s security is its ability to segregate the packets of data from one another.

To understand tunneling, first you must understand that the information exchanged between computers on the internet is broken down into a series of packets. For example, when you sent a request to visit this website, your computer sent a number of packets to this server. Our server reads the data in these packets and serves the requested website. This is where the concept behind the ‘packet’ sniffing software emanates from.

So in order to segregate your traffic from the rest of the public traffic, VPNs use a tunneling mechanism; it sends all the data between your computer and the VPN server through a virtual tunnel. This process, which is also good to prevent anyone from getting their hands on your traffic is called incapsulation.

Protect your privacy and anonymity With VPN

VPNs use a variety of techniques to ensure that your privacy and anonymity can be maintained. The sophisticated methods involved are extremely difficult to crack. So make it a point to have a personal VPN service that you can use whenever you use public WiFi’s in cafes, hotels and other public places.

On top of that, always use a strong password for your WordPress sites and implement two-factor authentication (2FA), since no security solution is bulletproof. So the more you can do to keep your computer, connection, and website secure, the less are the chances of having problems.

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