A VPN is a benefit to any operating system, not just macOS, but since we’re focusing on Mac’s operating system in this example we’ll stick to that. In terms of what a VPN can do for your Mac’s security and privacy, well, there’s quite a lot.
One of the main benefits of a VPN is that the communications between your Mac’s network interface and the internet will be encrypted – usually to an extremely high, military grade level. In most cases, whenever you send information to and from your Mac to the internet it’s processed in multiple chunks of data. This data is often unencrypted, plain text, and thus is easy for someone to intercept and view.
The use of HTTPS when browsing does stop the sending of plain text, since the S part of the acronym means Secure. However, a 2018 security report stated that only 57.1% of the internet’s most popular websites have a secure implementation of HTTPS. And it is believed that, even with the added security, there are tools available that can quickly get around the S-part of the protocol.
A VPN will utilise its own unique set of protocols and encryption. Which means that it will create a virtual network adapter that filters all data traffic to and from the computer through the VPN’s enhanced levels of encryption. This encryption is often to the tune of 256-bit AES, otherwise often classed as military grade encryption.
In very basic terms, 256-bit AES encryption means that the contents of the data sent to and from your computer are so scrambled, and can only be viewed by being unlocked with a unique pre-defined key, that all the world’s most powerful supercomputers would take more than the current entire lifespan of the universe to crack. So, essentially, if you had the world’s current supercomputing power at the time of the Big Bang, and you started to brute force hack away at a 256-bit AES encrypted data package, you would still be at it, 13 billion or so years later.
But, there are rumours – there are always rumours and theories – that specialised encryption-breaking processors, usually employed by super-secretive government agencies, are capable of breaking these encryption keys. Whether they really exist or not is a matter for another day, but rest assured, unless you’re planning on engaging in anything extremely illegal, or you’re planning on overthrowing a government or two, then you’ll hardly become the target for such immense computing and cryptographic technologies.
The End User
All of that is of course very impressive, but what does it means for you? Simply speaking, it means that all of your data, which includes messages, emails, webpage visits, passwords, account login details and so on, are protected behind a near-impenetrable level of encryption.
For example, if you use a local WiFi Hotspot and start surfing away, checking your work email, maybe looking at how much money you have left in the bank, the traffic that’s going to and from your computer can be intercepted in what’s known as a Man-in-the-Middle attack. This is when a hacker is capable of mimicking the real café WiFi hotspot and substituting it with their own. Anybody connected to the spoof hotspot will have their traffic routed via the hacker’s computer before going out to the internet and back. To the user, they’ll never know the difference. But to the hacker, it’ll be Christmas as they steadily gather all the data packets and begin to run tools that will display the contents of the packets in plain text.
If you’re using a VPN, then, despite the hacker having gathered those data packets, they will be completely useless to them. Without the de-encryption key that the VPN app handles, the data packets won’t make any sense. And unless the hacker has the full might of the NSA behind them, they’ll never know what they contain.
Privacy and Anonymity
A VPN will mask your IP address with one of its own, from a user-specified server located anywhere in the world. This feature is one of the more alluring aspects of a VPN, to hide your publicly facing connection behind the address of another country.
In most cases this will enable you to view things like Netflix from an American IP address, so you can get to watch the different content the streaming service offers to its US viewers. But it’s main benefit is that it provides you with a high degree of anonymity.
Anonymity is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re securely hidden from the prying eyes of those who monitor the goings on of others, whereas on the other, if you’re up to something dodgy, there’s not much anyone can do about it.
Being hidden behind an IP address from another country isn’t always about downloading illegal content from the darker corners of the internet. Many of the human rights violations you’ve heard about in the news comes from those on the ground in the countries where it’s happening. These brave individuals risked their own lives to report what’s going on to the wider world, and they used a VPN to hide their report from their governments – who would no doubt have silenced them long before the report reached the ears of journalists in other parts of the globe.
Like every aspect of the internet as a whole, it has its good side and dark side; it’s how you use it that matters, and a VPN will certainly help you stay secure and private while doing so.