What is a VPN, Why You Should Use One (Outside of School), and How You Can Make Your Own


Most students at John Jay are familiar with virtual private network (VPN) services services for their potential to circumvent web restrictions on school internet which has prompted the banning of VPN use by the school. VPNs however serve a variety of purposes besides the circumvention of local internet restrictions and can be an important too to ensure privacy and protect one’s access to a free internet.

VPNs clients work by accessing a server in another location through an encrypted tunnelling protocol over the web. In some VPNs that server just serves as a proxy for web access, in other VPNs that server connects to a network, allowing a user to operate machines on that network without being directly connected to that network. VPNs for general consumer use usually just web proxies and networking variants are more common in commercial enterprise.

If you want to send sensitive information over unsecured public wifi networks you should use a VPN. Information that is sent over unsecured networks is susceptible to interception and viewing through packet sniffing and an intruding device can insert itself into the connection in a man-in-the-middle attack. Even when web traffic is appears to be encrypted with HTTPS it is very common for some information to be  sent with unencrypted HTTP leaving openings for exploitation on unsecured networks. Because VPNs connect to a proxy through an encrypted tunnel, if the tunneling protocol is sufficiently secure, anything sent through the VPN will be encrypted allowing relatively secure use of public internet.

Because VPNs redirect traffic to a proxy server they can help to ensure freedom from restrictions imposed by governments and  internet service pretenders. Using a proxy creates two connections as opposed to one direct connection, one between the VPN client and the VPN service and one between the VPN service and web content. When directly connection to web content is restricted or censored and a connection to a VPN service is not, using a VPN with a different connection to the internet will allow circumvention of the restrictions imposed on a direct connection. Internet service providers may block or throttle some content. For example ISPs have throttled high bandwidth streaming services like Netflix. By connecting through a VPN with a different access point to the internet one can avoid content restriction and throttling by ISPs. The same applies to government censorship: If one wants to access censored sites in a country with restricted internet such as China, if they can connect to an unblocked VPN service that is located in an area with uncensored internet and can route connections to censored content through the VPN. Additionally using a VPN proxy obscures the content you view from internet service providers and the government. Though VPNs may not ensure complete privacy they are a helpful tool to obscure your identity online, especially when combined with other obfuscation technologies like the Tor network.

If you want a secure, fast, and customizable VPN service without paying a costly monthly subscription and you have some computer capability you should consider running your own VPN server with OpenVPN or a similar program. You can run an OpenVPN server from pretty much any linux computer in your home and you can access the VPN on it through client apps available for computers or smartphones. If you have a raspberry pi you can use PiVPN to run an openVPN server on that.