In 2017, 93% of US viewers reported using a VPN to watch shows in another country. This goes to show how popular VPN use has become, but many don’t know very much about how this technology works. While it may not be so important for simply streaming shows from abroad, understanding VPNs better can help you use them more safely. As VPN services improve, hackers and censors get better at counteracting them. So, it’s important to keep up with developments in VPN technology, and to know the specifics of the service you’re using. For instance, you should know what kind of encryption and what encryption strength you want when deciding between VPN services.
Different Encryption Strengths
Not all VPNs carry the same strength of encryption. One big difference to look out for is which type of encryption your VPN service uses. Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol or PPTP is the encryption protocol used by the first commercial VPNs and is the most popular version available today. It has the advantage of faster connection speeds but isn’t as secure as other protocols like IPSec and OpenVPN, which use transport layer security to give you even more protection. If you want to get even deeper in the weeds, you can look at the cryptographic function and bit length being used. Encryption keys with a longer bit length are more secure, but again, they’ll cut down on speed pretty quickly, so it’s a tradeoff to consider.
If you have an older router, you might need to enable VPN passthrough for your VPN to work. VPN passthrough is a router feature that counteracts the efforts of your router to collect all devices into a single IP address. This is called “network address translation” or NAT. It works similarly to a firewall and will block data sent through your VPN.
Most new routers, though, come with passthrough enabled already and all you need to do is go through the steps to set up the VPN on your router. Older routers, however, might require extra steps to enable VPN passthrough. You also might need to perform these steps if your VPN uses the OpenVPN protocol. This more advanced protocol can still cause problems for even relatively new routers and takes a little more to use well than less advanced protocols.
Server Placement Matters
Finally, you’ll want to think about where your VPN’s servers are located. There are a few reasons for this. First, if you’re trying to, for instance, access your US Netflix account from outside the country, you’ll want a VPN with servers based in the US so that you can access it. Similarly, if your concern is security or censorship, you’ll want to look for servers based in countries with more privacy-friendly laws on data seizure and the like.
Just because your data is safe traveling to and from the server doesn’t mean it’s safe from being seized there. For the most security possible, you can even avoid countries that are part of the Five Eyes agreement (Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, and New Zealand) for surveillance and data sharing, but again, you should weigh all of this against your actual security needs. In the end, you probably won’t need to use all of this information when choosing a reasonable VPN for everyday use, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to know.