A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, allows you to surf the web and browse anonymously by hiding your IP address (your digital ID) and data traffic to external snoopers.
Many people use a VPN to trick some streaming services into believing they are in a different country, or to hide what they are doing, making many believe that they might be illegal, but while that might sound nefarious it is perfectly legitimate.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN works by utilising a set of servers often sited in various different countries and run by a specific VPN company.
Connecting to a VPN establishes an encrypted "tunnel" into the server, and then any connections out to the big wide world are routed through these servers. By doing this, the end user's identity - that's you - is masked and you can then surf with relative anonymity.
Businesses often utilise VPNs to allow staff to access confidential e-mail accounts and file servers with a high degree of security, usually in business-critical situations.
VPNs aren't just restricted to businesses though. You can use a VPN on your phone, desktop or even smart TV to protect and hide yourself from the internet.
It's this hiding, or lack of visibility, that has questioned some to ask if a VPN is illegal or not?
Will I get into trouble using a VPN?
The short answer is no. But, if you proceed to use this anonymity for illegal purposes that's a different matter. If you break the law, you're breaking the law whether you use a VPN or not.
What about watching streaming services on a VPN in another country?
One of the biggest grey areas about the legality of using a VPN is whether you are allowed to spoof services that are geographically sensitive, such as Netflix. The US streaming service offers different programming options to different markets depending on the rights for certain TV shows. It's the same for accessing BBC iPlayer from outside of the UK. Sky Go too.
The reason is that most TV companies make a lot of money by selling broadcast rights to their shows to different territories and even different providers. Star Trek Discovery in the US, for example, is on CBS, but outside of the US it's available on Netflix. Netflix reportedly paid over $7m an episode for the privilege.
Using a VPN in the US, you could pretend that you are in another country, and therefore access the Netflix version of the show - thereby circumnavigating CBS' advertising or payments. CBS loses out and Netflix gains.
In most instances, you'll find that the Ts & Cs you signed up to when you signed up to the service prohibit such access.
Can I download illegal movies using a VPN?
Yes. Remember a VPN is just a secure way of surfing the internet. However, while a VPN may cover your tracks and keep your activity hidden from your internet provider, torrenting copyrighted material while using a VPN doesn’t make it legal. You'll still be in trouble if you get caught.
While a VPN service will hide copyright infringement activities, it won’t protect users who are caught even after using a VPN service. Many services will, however, maintain no-log policies and IP leak protection to help prevent situations where user identity might be compromised.
Is a VPN just a legal way of doing illegal stuff?
Not exactly. Many VPNs don't offer full "invisibility" on the web, and some don't encrypt everything you do. Find out our top 10 VPN providers that offer full "invisibility" and encryption.
Using a VPN itself is not illegal, but if you use it to try and hide illegal activity, it's still your neck on the chopping block.