What Is A VPN, And Should You Have One?


A Virtual Private Network (VPN) will protect your data, maintain your privacy, and keep you secure online. But just what is a VPN, and how do they work?

By Nick Palmisano

In an age of online surveillance, where legislation continues to mount against digital freedoms, net users are turning to VPNs to bypass restrictions, circumvent geo-blocking, and keep their data private.

To understand a VPN however, you’ve got to understand the Internet.

Understanding The Internet:

Imagine the Internet is an ocean.

This ocean is vast, and in it are endless individual islands.

These islands are known as LANs (Local Area Networks), and you live on one of them.

Some of these islands are close, while others are very far away. In order to reach these islands, you must take a ferry.

Using this ferry is like connecting to a web server or other device through the Internet.

You have no control over the wires or routers that make up this server, just as you cannot control the other people who are on the ferry with you.

This leaves you open to security and privacy risks when trying to connect two or more private networks (the LANs) using a public resource.

Wi-Fi is one of the most common LAN technologies available today, used widely in public areas where consumers now expect a connection, known as ‘hotspots’.

These ‘hotspots’, like those in coffee shops, are unsecured public networks, and while most have firewalls designed to protect your system from the Internet, they do not protect your system from other network users.

This is where VPNs come in

The Virtual Private Network:

Coming back to our island analogy, let’s frame VPNs as single person submarines, and everybody on your island owns one.

These submarines have amazing properties:

  • They’re fast.
  • You can take them with you anywhere you go.
  • They can hide you from other boats, and even other submarines.
  • They’re reliable.
  • Once you’ve purchased your first submarine, it costs little to buy another.

Now that you have your submarine, you can travel between islands whenever you want with privacy and security.

HOW IT WORKS: a diagram illustrating how a VPN service works. CREDIT: Smartunblock.com

HOW IT WORKS: a diagram illustrating how a VPN service works. CREDIT: Smartunblock.com

This is essentially how a VPN works, connecting you in a private, secure manner with another member of your network, using the Internet as the conduit.

The other key aspect is the way in which VPNs can send data from one network to another.

VPN Tutorial Guide

Packets, Packets, Packets:

Right now you are using your computer to access a web server, which contains the file for this article you are reading.

Your computer sends a request for a file (this article) and the server responds by sending it to you.

The file is sent as multiple ‘packets’, parts of the file between 1000-1500 bytes, that when joined together make up the whole, just like a jigsaw.

Packets contain headers and footers that tell computers what’s in a packet and how the information fits with other packets to form a complete file.

When the packets get to you, your device arranges them into a perfect symmetry, enabling you to read, watch, or understand what is on your screen.

Packets extend to other file types beyond web pages, such as emails, which are also broken down into packets.

VPNs work differently.

Packets are not broken down, rather, the entire packet is hidden inside another one, the way you might bubble wrap presents before sending them onwards.

This is known as tunnelling, a way to send the complete packet discreetly and securely without risking its security, while exposing only the surface packet.

Beyond their security and privacy value, individuals also employ VPNs to bypass geographical restrictions on content, especially in Australia, where streaming services like HBO are unavailable, and Netflix offers little compared to its US service.

VPNs And Geo-blocking

Your desktop and laptop computer, server, scanner, printer, modem, router, smartphone and tablet all have an IP address.

This is known as an Internet Protocol address, which identifies your system and its geographic location to the network you are using.

Geo-blocking is the practice of preventing a network user from accessing content, usually websites or downloading media, based on location.

Countries such as China use geo-blocking to insulate their own network from foreign material, while film and television companies like HBO, and Netflix, use geo-blocking to restrict their content to specific regions.

They do this by targeting specific IP addresses that geographically originate from outside their region.

 GEOBLOCKING: The homepage of one of many VPN Websites: SOURCE: TorGuard

GEOBLOCKING: The homepage of one of many VPN Websites: SOURCE: TorGuard

In this way, film, television, and entertainment companies can regionalize their content, setting prices dependent entirely on where you live.

Australian consumers often suffer from geo-blocking, with companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon charging higher prices via the $AUD than are advertised in the USA for the same product.

Piracy, Equal Access, The Film That Fuelled The Fire

Illegal downloading of the film Dallas Buyers Club has prompted Government to respond to calls by film companies to crack down on film piracy. CREDIT: CCTV America

VPNs have servers around the world, either digital or physical and in a multitude of countries.

When you access your VPN, you have the option to select which server you’d like your IP to operate from.

Most VPNs have servers in the USA, so even if you’re sitting on the steps of Darling Harbour, your IP address will register on the network as originating from the USA.

This allows you to bypass geo-restrictions and access content that would otherwise be inaccessible to Australian consumers.

So Are VPNs Legal?

In March, Federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 to parliament.

NEW BILL: VPNs will not be in the firing line if Communication Minister Malcom Turnbull's bill is passed. CREDIT: Alex Ellinghausen

NEW BILL: Communication’s Minister Malcom Turnbull says VPNs are safe, but it’s unclear how his amendments to the Copyright Act will affect their legal standing. CREDIT: Alex Ellinghausen

The bill, if passed, will require Internet service providers to block access to overseas websites found to facilitate copyright infringement.

Malcolm Turnbull’s own website has a stream of facts regarding the legal ramifications of the bill, and for the moment it seems, VPNs are safe.

“The Copyright Act does not make it illegal to use a VPN to access overseas content.” – Federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

HBO in the last few days has cut off Australian consumers from accessing their services via geo-blocking methods, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald explains.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) is equally concerned that the vagueness of definitions and terms within the Copyright Amendment Bill could leave VPN’s vulnerable.

With over 200,000 estimated Netflix users in Australia, and many of them VPN users, any law that restricts or blocks VPNs from doing their job may adversely impact streaming services rather than help them.

Regardless of whether you access geo-blocked content, there’s no denying that a VPN is an essential service, designed to protect your data, keep you secure, and maintain your privacy.

The only question now is how long they’ll be able to do that.