VPN’s Explained

Last night I mentioned the use of a VPN on Facebook. It occurred to me that many of my FB friends don’t have a clue what I was talking about. So here is a brief tutorial on VPN’s.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It was originally developed to allow remote users to securely connect to a corporations internal networks. Corporations install firewalls to prevent unauthorized users to snoop around their internal networks. The VPN provides end-to-end encrypted connection.

That was the original idea. Now it seems some new and clever uses have emerged. There are companies that will sell for a modest price VPN service that provides anonymous connections to the internet. This has been used successfully in third world countries to allow users (say in China) to bypass Chinese government attempts to prevent Chinese citizens to look at sites outside their country.

The service that I use is sold by a company called Avast!. They also provide free anti-virus apps. So when I bring up my VPN it goes through one of Avast’s servers around the world. This prevents snoops (like the NSA or CIA) from looking at what web sites you are visiting.

Web servers have the ability to find out in a general fashion where you are located. For instance, a weather site would find out that I live in the Los Angeles area and that I probably would be interested in the weather in LA. A site can do a “traceroute” to find out where your IP address is located. Netflix uses traceroute to make sure that you are inside the continental USA. Their agreement with content providers is for US access only.

So when I use a VPN, I can make a web server think that I am located somewhere else. Last night I was trying to access both the Apple and AT&T site. My thought was that they might be giving east coast users a head start on ordering new iPhones. So I loaded my VPN going through New York. It didn’t help because the Apple and AT&T sites were severely overloaded.

I also occasionally use it for accessing MLBtv. That is the Major League Baseball subscription app for viewing baseball games. MLB however blacks out games in your local area. Seeing as I usually want to watch Boston Red Sox game, this is not a problem. However, when the Sox were playing the LA Dodgers, the game was blacked out here in LA. So I loaded my VPN going through Seattle. Presto, MLB thinks I’m in Seattle. Game on. Unfortunately this doesn’t work for my iPad. Apple devices also have a GPS that MLB uses to find out where you are.

VPN’s are also very useful for securing your internet access from public wiFi access (eg. at Starbucks, Local Libraries and hotels). I strongly encourage VPN use in those situations. You just don’t know who is listening.

Here are a few links for your education (be forwarned these wiki articles are a bit technical):

Virtual Private Networks Wiki


Avast! VPN Service

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