With the death of net neutrality, many websites are advocating that you get a VPN, but is it really necessary?
What is it?
To understand if you need it or not, the first thing to understand is what it is. So, a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a way to securely connect you to an external network. This can be used, for example, to connect one office’s network to another one when creating a physical connection is not feasible, and security is required. Well, that is what VPNs were designed for, but that isn’t really their main appeal in today’s world. They are advertised as a way to stay anonymous and secure on today’s internet. However, they still work by connecting your device to an external network, which accesses the internet for you, which is why your IP changes. A proxy also changes your IP, but a VPN can send all network traffic through the server, and not just applications configured to use it.
Why do people use it?
Well, by some, including me, it is still used for its original purpose of connecting a device to an external network, but its uses have expanded. Many people use it to bypass internet filtering, such as on a school or work network. This works because, after the connection to the VPN server is established, the network you’re on can only see packets going to that server, and not what websites your going to. This, of course, making internet filtering impossible, assuming they don’t own the VPN. VPNs are also used by some people to hide their IP addresses from websites. While this does hide your approximate physical location, it doesn’t add much anonymity. That is because you probably log in to services you use, giving them a really easy way to track you. VPNs can also provide ad-blocking by blocking the domains ads come from.
This sounds great
It does, but it’s getting harder and harder for your ISP to see what you’re doing. Back in the days of HTTP, your ISP could see everything you do, and possibly inject their own stuff in. That all changed with the introduction of HTTPS, which encrypts the website, and verifies that the site was not tampered with. There are man-in-the-middle attacks, but unless you bought your computer from your ISP, any attempts to change the certificate will be detected. So, HTTPS only allows your ISP to see where the packets are being sent. But, they can also see any DNS lookups you make, as those are not encrypted, yet. There will soon be DNS over HTTPS available, which will prevent your ISP from seeing what domains you’re going to. Of course, they can do a reverse DNS lookup on the IP you’re going to, but the point is to make it as hard as possible for them to see what you’re doing. Be warned, that nothing in HTTPS prevents your ISP from blocking or throttling sites, all it does is ensure the site itself is not tampered with, and that only you can see it.
I’d say that most people should use a VPN. It’s not needed if you’re a casual user, and your ISP doesn’t throttle you. But, if you want to annoy your ISP and get access to unthrottled streaming without paying for their $999999 a month “diamond platinum plus plus unleaded deluxe premium break-the-bank for half-off streaming” plan, a VPN can help.