Nuts, Bolts, And Why You Want A VPN
You know that the public Internet is not secure. It's like a public highway system. Any compliant traffic can hop on or off at will. To see what's inside of a car, all you have to do is look through the windows. A LAN is a private network, like driving inside of a gated community. Consumers, with their basic home routers, typically implement just enough security to deter curious onlookers -- a wooden fence, if you will. Businesses employ more serious measures, with dedicated firewall appliances, IT staff trained in security practices, and so on. LANs are essentially pockets of security dotting a landscape of open, insecure data traffic.
Many years ago (and to a lesser extent, still today), companies might opt to install a leased communications line from a provider, such as a T-1 or ISND line. This provided a new, private road between two points. In most cases, though, a VPN offers a drastically more cost-effective approach. A VPN is a sort of secure tunnel between a client (PC, laptop, tablet, etc.) and a LAN. The traffic between those two points still travels across the open Internet, but encryption provides a sort of shroud around the connection. Those who want a peek can't see inside the connection, and even if they manage to break in, the traffic packets are still encrypted and thus gibberish when examined.
Additionally, by manipulating the header information in your packet stream, an intermediary VPN service replaces your computer’s IP address with its own. If that VPN service's server happens to be in a country beside your own, then it appears as if you are generating traffic from within that server’s country. Illicit uses of this location spoofing abound, but think of it this way: You want to get hired by a company that is only recruiting from the town next to yours. You're willing to accept the commute to get the job, so you convince a friend in the neighboring town to let you send mail from his address. You correspond with the employer from this second address, get the job, and the employer is none the wiser. (Whether you get busted and fired in an audit later is a different story.) Is this how people get around regional DRM restrictions for streaming content? Sure. Every day. It's illegal, but it happens. To be fair, this is also how people in oppressive, Internet-blocking nations manage to receive exposure to the outside world. For one recent example, check out VPN provider TorGuard's blog post on China's recent blocking of Gmail service.
Legitimate and semi-legitimate scenarios for VPN use abound. What if you're a student whose college requires a secure connection to the school's costly subscription databases? What if you're using BitTorrent to download legal content (of course) but don't want to run the risk of getting accused of downloading something you may not have intended? What if you're an American paying for a music streaming service and you travel abroad for a month to a country that restricts your content? (Note that streaming service providers, such as Netflix, may be getting more aggressive about limiting geoblocking work-arounds.) And naturally, there's always the pursuit of privacy and shielding your traffic from everyone simply because that's your right. As we said, VPN technology can be used for good or evil, and deciding which is which may be a matter of perspective.