Virtual Private Networks have hit the big-time, with around 25% of all web users having used in the past month, and hundreds of different VPNs to choose from on app repositories like Google Play. Across the world, people rely on VPNs to unlock entertainment content, find cheaper air fares, evade ISP throttling, and secure torrents. In a world of heightened privacy concerns, and mounting digital threats, that usage rate is only likely to grow.
But here’s the interesting thing about the Virtual Private Network phenomenon. Until relatively recently, these privacy tools were restricted to high-end corporate users or those who had special encryption requirements (such as users in repressive regimes). In the past 5 years, the world of Virtual Private Networks has exploded, with a massive expansion in providers, platforms, and customizable options.
In this blog, we’ll look at how this happened. Today’s VPNs rest on decades of research and development, and didn’t just emerge fully formed in 2015. So let’s take a deep dive back in time, and find out how this essential technology has evolved.
Setting the Stage for the First VPNs: A Prehistory
VPNs represent a merging of various different technologies into one commercially viable package, so we need to go beyond the first VPN. In fact, the history of VPNs stretches back to Ancient Egypt, where wall markings show evidence of early cryptography, hiding royal secrets from curious readers.
As states developed in the Middle Ages, statecraft expanded as well, and we see the emergence of recognisably modern encryption – with Arab experts taking the lead. Trailblazers like al-Kindi developed frequency analysis, which is still a standard method of decryption. The Italian Renaissance moved things on, while states constantly sought ways to hide their communications, and to read those of others.
That history of encryption fed into the development of Virtual Private Networks, but other factors were necessary. For instance, the internet had to exist to some extent for VPN servers to make sense, and that only really happened in the mid-1990s. And there was also a need to « wrap » data in secure packets for transmissions via VPNs. This had to wait until the development of the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), also in the 1990s.
Finally, Virtual Private Networks had to wait for a purpose to arrive. Until the internet attracted a mass user-base, the trio of tunneling protocols, secure encryption, and packet-switching routing servers would have very limited uses. But when millions of people started to log on, the whole situation changed dramatically.
The Birth of VPNs: IPSec and PPTP
In 1996, a Microsoft engineer called Gurdeep Singh-Pall made a key invention. Singh-Pall was the first person to accurately describe and implement PPTP as a viable solution for ordinary networks. With PPTP, it would be possible to use IP addresses to switch packets, providing users with an untraceable, anonymous identity.
Almost simultaneously, groups of researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory, SunOS, Columbia University, and Trusted Information Systems created a system known as IPSec (IP Security). This system would work alongside PPTP (and other tunneling protocols), performing a vitally important role.
IPSec offered the first practical way to authenticate packets of data as they were channeled around Virtual Private Networks, mixing the use of variable encryption keys, and IP packet switching to offer decent speeds and an unprecedented level of privacy.
With tunneling and packet switching taken care of, all that remained was for companies to implement the new technologies. Microsoft started to package VPN-style technology with its Windows operating systems, and Cisco joined the party early on. However, these tools were generally limited to professional users, with rapid internet connections. Things had to change before ordinary web users could enjoy the benefits of anonymization and encryption.
The 2000s: VPNs Start to Find Their Niche
After the turn of the millenium, several important things happened to spark the growth of Virtual Private Networks. Firstly, as we mentioned earlier, the web became part of everyday life. And connection speeds rose rapidly as broadband went mainstream. This led to the development of streaming platforms, P2P downloads, and – on the flip side – the ability of governments to use innovative and worrying surveillance systems.
At the same time, older forms of VPN technology were replaced. PPTP was quickly dropped by most secure providers. As soon as 1998, security researchers had pointed to flaws in its architecture. And IPSec suffered its own problems, spurring developers to find new forms of encryption and ways to build VPNs that served a mass market.
As a result, new products emerged. AES-256 encryption started to replace 56 or 128-bit versions, and the OpenVPN protocol began to attract a lot of attention. Using OpenSSL for encryption, the OpenVPN project was started in 2001, but has moved from strength to strength, feeding off a huge reservoir of talented coders. By 2010, it was quickly displacing PPTP/IPSec as the most secure Virtual Private Network platform.
Today’s VPNs Take Center Stage: 2010 Onwards
During the late 2000s and early 2010s, smartphones, Netflix, multiplayer gaming, Kodi, and NSA surveillance scandals all hit the news – and all in their own way expanded the demand for Virtual Private Network technology.
It didn’t take long for developers to respond. HideMyAss (2005), PureVPN (2007) ExpressVPN (2009), Tunnelbear (2011), NordVPN (2012), and IPVanish (2012) all carved out market share, as users became aware of the need for privacy and anonymity.
In some countries, VPNs also took off due to official censorship. As more content became available to consumers worldwide, and social media became a part of daily life, citizens in Saudi Arabia or China naturally looked for ways to unlock censored content – starting the tug of war between VPNs and the « Great Firewall » that shows no signs of ending.
More recently, VPNs have added new platforms, with versions for Amazon Fire, Kodi boxes, PlayStation consoles, and easier router implementations. They have synchronized with anti-virus packages to blend privacy and protection. Server colonies of expanded and diversified, with specialist P2P servers to allow torrenters to stream content securely. And some VPNs have gone further, adding « Stealth VPN » technology and Tor via VPN to make customers even more secure.
The result is a sector that’s packed with different options – some good, some bad. For the low down on the latest VPNs, head to review sites like VPNpro, or download some free trial versions, and discover them for yourself. And expect future innovations, as the campaign to smash geoblocks and censorship continues. This story is one that never ends, and VPNs have plenty of evolving left to do.