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From what we've been taught at networking lessons, I understand that a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is made to interconnect physically separate networks or computers via the Internet and sort-of emulate a local area network over these computers. I take applications like Hamachi, Tunngle or Evolve (RIP) as the main examples of a VPN.

Yet when I usually see a VPN mentioned, it is in sentences like "get a VPN to become anonymous" or "I am using VPN to hide my real IP address on this server". I fail to understand a) how could a VPN be utilized to connect to the Internet when it is made to interconnect private networks, and b) why is VPN used in such a manner when its purpose is different?

In these examples, people seem to be using a computer in the network as a medium in the transmission, masking the original IP address. Yet this usage matches another device I know - a proxy (Tor coming to my mind as one of the examples). But setting up a whole VPN seems pointless to me when all they need is a proxy server. Is it just me or do people really mix these terms up?

  • proxy servers are used for specific connections like http, https or some other protocol. VPNs are used for all connections. VPNs are not so private when used with a browser: cookies and geolocation may be enough to pinpoint who is using the browser over the VPN – anneb Jun 28 '17 at 23:11
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    hmm, this is not an exact duplicate of How does anonymous VPN work? superuser.com/questions/67827/how-does-anonymous-vpn-work as that does not ask for difference proxy with server – anneb Jun 28 '17 at 23:18
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First, VPNs ensure better anonymity and have more features.

  • In case of a proxy server, a JavaScript running on a client computer is able to extract the real IP address of that computer. This JavaScript, once run on a computer on a VPN, extracts the IP address of the VPN endpoint, which is usually 192.168.x.x or something equally useless.
  • Proxy servers need per-app configurations and some apps do not support such a configuration. Some deliberately bypass it. Actually, an anti-privacy app is certain to do so. VPN solutions modify a computer's networking stack, leaving an app no choice but to transmit over the VPN.
  • Proxy servers are protocol-dependent. Even SOCKS proxy servers are so. VPN supports emulating a whole networking stack with all its vices and peculiarities.
  • VPNs also provide end-to-end encryption and data integrity checking. This prevents unauthorized information interception in transit.

Second, there is a difference between possibility, feasibility and practicality. VPNs are currently fashionable, meaning that regardless of technical superiority or inferiority, VPN is the solution that you can put to use for the least total cost of ownership (TCO) as they are more developed, better marketed and have more support on endpoints.

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If you use a paid VPN subscription like F-Secure Freedome or Proton VPN, you connect to their network, and all communication goes via them. Then the VPN is a proxy. They don't store your browsing information, and visited sites like Facebook don't see your home IP address. That doesn't mean that Facebook can use other means to identify you, but this part is a lot more privacy friendly.

You can use a VPN connection to connect to your home or office network, but that's totally different. Then it's about connecting securely to a network drive or a mailserver. Maybe it's setup similar to the VPN services I describe above, and then it looks like you're browsing from the office or home, using that IP address. But this doesn't happen automatically. And still, this is not about privacy.

  • I was more confused about the reason why these providers call themselves "VPN providers", since they are technically and more correctly providing a "VPN proxy". I suppose setting the gateway to some server in the VPN to act like the proxy is enough, but this server is not something that comes naturally with a VPN (which I see more in terms of Hamachi etc.). Hence the confusion. – IllidanS4 wants Monica back Apr 14 '18 at 22:47

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