A VPN is a virtual private network, connecting two or more locations on the Internet to one another. It's private in that all traffic within the VPN is encrypted, making it extremely difficult for anyone else to access the data. It's virtual because the communications take place using the public Internet rather than over an actual private network.
If you set up an account with a VPN service like iVPN.net, you can use it to connect to websites or do just about anything else on the Internet without disclosing your actual location. Normally your IP address is visible to websites that you connect to, and from that they can often pinpoint your physical location and determine other information about you. (For a quick example, take a look at What Is My IP Address? or InfoSniper.) When you go through a VPN, however, only the IP address of the VPN is visible. (Of course, there are many other ways that websites can get information about you. The privacy or incognito mode on your web browser can conceal some but not all of this information.)
Why would you use a VPN service? There are many reasons; here are just a few:
- You want websites to think you are in a different country. For example, you may be trying to order something or view content that is only available to users in certain countries. Using a VPN that makes it appear as if you are somewhere else may circumvent country restrictions. iVPN.net has servers in several different countries.
- You want to protect the privacy and security of your communications. This is especially important when you are traveling or using a public wifi hotspot, since it's often very easy for others to eavesdrop on your communications. Using a VPN will encrypt data between you and the VPN, but it doesn't have much effect on the other side of the VPN, so it's still important to pay attention to other security functions, such as using https rather than http to access websites securely.
- You don't completely trust your regular Internet service provider. Your ISP can access all of your communications, but if you use a VPN, all it will see is the encrypted data. So if your ISP (or school, employer, etc.) tries to block certain websites such as Facebook, using a VPN should circumvent that, since all the ISP will see is your encrypted connection to the VPN. (That's why Pakistan recently banned the use of VPNs.) Of course, you'll need to trust the VPN, since it will have access to your communications. This may well be an issue; many VPN services are located in other countries for legal reasons. iVPN.net says it is located in Malta, and claims that it does not monitor or store logs of any user activity. I can't vouch for iVPN.net personally, but as far as I can tell it is legit, and I haven't yet seen any red flags.
- You don't trust sites that you may be connecting to. For example, if you use BitTorrent to download or distribute files, any nodes that you connect to will see your IP address, and in some cases may complain to your ISP, claiming that they own the copyright in one of the files. Many ISPs will send warning notices to subscribers threatening to cut off service rather than checking whether there is any merit to the claim. Concealing your IP address avoids this issue. Note that there are perfectly legitimate uses of BitTorrent, just as there are for VPNs. iVPN.net allows BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services, but says it does not support using these services to transfer copyright material.
- It's not very difficult to use a VPN service, and most providers will give you simple instructions to follow. There are three common encryption protocols you can use when connecting to a VPN (PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, and OpenVPN); many providers give you a choice. iVPN.net has a table that explains the differences.
There are some potential disadvantages to consider:
- As mentioned above, you'll need to trust the VPN service provider, just as you need to trust your regular Internet service provider when you aren't using a VPN.
- Using a VPN can slow down your Internet access, especially if you are accessing a VPN that is far away. Many factors affect the speed you will get, including the location of the VPN server and the protocol that you use to connect. With iVPN.net, my connection slowed from about 14 Mbps to 1 Mbps when I used L2TP/IPSec, but came back up to about 8 Mbps when I switched to OpenVPN. (By way of comparison, I tested a different VPN service which supports only the less secure PPTP, and got about 7 Mbps.)
- In most cases you'll have to pay a monthly or annual fee for a VPN service. iVPN.net charges $15/month or $100/year. That seems to be toward the higher end of the spectrum, but watch out for restrictions on other services; they don't all offer the same features, and some limit the amount of data you can send and receive. (I found these comparison tables helpful: VPN Service Providers; VPN Reviews.)