VPNs have been in the news recently and there has been a certain amount of uncertainty around them. There has been quite a bit of furore over VPNs in India as the government wanted VPN providers to strictly follow new cybersecurity rules. As a result, a few VPN providers have expressed doubts about continuing operations in India. We explain what a VPN is, why it is important and what’s the controversy all about?
What is a VPN?
As the name suggests, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In simple words, a VPN disguises your online identity. A VPN helps establish a safe and encrypted connection between your device and the internet. Think of it as an invisibility cloak that keeps your data and communication safe and stops third parties from tracking your activities and mining your data.
How does a VPN work and ensure privacy?
When you use the internet — without a VPN — then your data is directed to the internet service provider. What a VPN does is that it routes your traffic through a VPN server. This ensures that when your data hits the internet, it comes from the VPN server and not your phone or laptop. So once the VPN masks your IP, your data is safe and private from hackers, governments or anyone who might be trying to keep a track of your online activities.
Who are the big users of VPNs?
Simply put, anyone and everyone can use a VPN. However, VPNs are still not really mainstream. A lot of big corporations use VPNs as do lawyers, activists, security researchers, cybersecurity experts, journalists — anyone who doesn’t want their activities being tracked. According to AtlasVPN, which maintains data on VPN adoption, there are around 270 million VPN users in India. Estimates from the Global VPN Usage Report 2020 suggest that 45% of internet usage in India happens through VPN. So a lot of people in India do use VPNs.
What’s the ‘problem’ between VPN providers and the government?
The government wants VPN providers to keep a detailed record of users. The data will include IP addresses allotted, why they are using VPN and email addresses among others. The VPN service providers believe that this is an assault on user privacy. They believe that by storing user data, they will fundamentally go against the idea of having a VPN.
What’s the way out for VPN service providers?
ExpressVPN has made a “very straightforward” decision to remove its Indian-based VPN servers. Instead, it will move its virtual servers — where all the data is stored — to another location. Like ExpressVPN will still be able to connect to VPN servers that will give them Indian IP addresses and allow them to access the internet as if they were located in India. “These “virtual” India servers will instead be physically located in Singapore and the UK,” said ExpressVPN.
How different will be the user experience on “virtual” servers?
Not much really. For the end-user, the location of the server where data is stored doesn’t matter. ExpressVPN said that there will be “minimal difference” for users. All that users — who want to connect to an Indian server — will have to simply select the VPN server location “India (via Singapore)” or “India (via UK).” Virtual server locations are extremely common. With virtual locations, the registered IP address matches the country you have chosen to connect to, while the server is physically located in another country. Virtual locations are used, where necessary, to provide faster, more reliable connections to users.