Virtual private networks can seem quite mysterious if you’re not computer savvy, and VPN jargon might sound like a different language.
Yet a VPN is simply a secure connection between two computers, enabling information to be transmitted discreetly without being seen by anyone else.
Imagine having a choice between crossing a busy road in sight of other people, or using an underpass that hides you from view.
Both routes achieve the same outcome, but one is much more discreet.
With a VPN, the tunnel is exclusively yours, and nobody else can see it – or use it.
Why would I want to use a VPN?
The most common reason is to achieve greater privacy when sending and receiving information.
This is particularly relevant when using WiFi, as public networks offer little protection against prying eyes. Even domestic broadband hubs are easily spied upon.
That’s a problem, since cyberspace is awash with criminals who would love to know which characters you use to access your online banking, or what your social media passwords are.
VPNs also enable you to circumvent geolocation restrictions, so you can listen to a local radio station from a different county, or watch a movie that’s not been released in the UK yet.
The A-U of VPN jargon
This is some of the most common VPN jargon you’ll encounter:
- AES. Short for Advanced Encryption Standard, most industry observers regard this as the safest form of encryption
- Asymmetric encryption. A two-step key exchange before data is shared – one key is public and the other is private. By contrast, symmetric encryption uses a single key
- BitTorrent. This protocol enables people to share files with each other. It’s typically used through VPNs to preserve the anonymity of individual file sharers
- Connection logs. Non-specific information about connections, usually relating to the length of time a connection has been established and which servers were involved
- Encryption. A form of code that turns digital data into seemingly random characters, so third parties can’t understand it
- Encryption key. The lengthy alphanumeric string generated to ensure previously unconnected devices can safely encrypt (and decrypt) data
- Geo-spoofing. When a VPN pretends a user is in a different place. Used to avoid location restrictions on content that’s only intended for certain audiences or regions
- HTTPS. A secure version of the HyperText Transfer Protocol used across the World Wide Web. HTTPS is ideal for ecommerce transactions or distributing sensitive material
- IPSec. Internet Protocol Security individually encrypts each data packet before it’s dispatched. That makes it very secure, and a favoured protocol among VPN providers
- Kill switch. VPNs occasionally go offline, but a kill switch ensures any programs using the VPN will be closed down immediately. Switches could be automatic or manual
- L2TP. Layer 2 Tunnelling Protocol is used in tandem with IPSec. Because no software is involved, L2TP is easy to set up even by a VPN novice
- Network lock. Another term for kill switch. (Also known by other titles like internet block, they all ensure a device won’t continue accessing data if the VPN drops out)
- OpenVPN. This is the most common protocol used by VPN services, and it’s considered largely uncrackable, even by security agencies
- Peer-to-peer. Abbreviated to P2P, and often known as torrenting, a P2P network sees users sharing files with each other without any central database or corporate oversight
- PPTP. The Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol was devised by Microsoft for VPNs. It’s universally recognised, but major security flaws mean it isn’t recommended any more
- Proxy. Think of this as a PO Box for information sent from a server to your device. A proxy server reroutes data, to cloak the source or destination of information it receives
- Shared IP address. Every internet connection should have a dedicated IP address, but VPN providers share addresses among clients to disguise which IP account did what
- SSL/TLS. These interchangeable terms describe the protocol employed to secure HTTPS websites. SSL is used heavily by OpenVPN to secure individual user connections
- Tor. The Onion Router is the main alternative to a VPN for encrypted and anonymous online activities. This popular web browser was co-developed by the US military
- Tunnel. The secure and encrypted connection between a user device and a network, most commonly a VPN
- Usage logs. Some VPN providers record basic information about user activity. These firms are generally worth avoiding, as logs could be used to identify individual users.