VPNs turn 25: networks born to save cable today protect dissidence on the internet
Gurdeep Pall He has been with Microsoft for three decades. The now corporate vice president of the company for the artificial intelligence area is a few minutes late for the interview because the night before his rest plans were altered. “For some reason, I woke up at three in the morning and started reading a paper about artificial intelligence. I didn’t go back to sleep until two hours later, ”he admits during the video call. Now Pall works on autonomous systems development. 25 years ago, what kept him awake to find a way to optimize the connections of employees who connected to the company’s servers remotely, so that a single cable was not necessary for each modem. From his sleepless hours came the first ancestor of what we now know as virtual private networks or VPNs and we use to establish encrypted connections with the internet that allow us to browse privately or to simulate that we are in another country
Andy Yen founded Proton Technologies, the company responsible for encrypted email ProtonMail Y ProtonVPN, in 2014. His was the first open source VPN service. He discovered this technology around 2008 when the great firewall -Firestop- of China and accessing the ocean of the internet from within the country became an obstacle course. “As a consumer, I had my first experience of why VPNs would be necessary and useful,” he recalls. Now the virtual private network service is a critical part of the ecosystem of services that your company offers. “In countries like Russia, Turkey, Iran or China there are millions of people who use ProtonMail to stay safe and preserve their privacy under authoritarian regimes,” he explains. “When we were born, in 2014, we anticipated that sooner or later we would be blocked in certain countries. The VPN service is a way to guarantee access ”.
Pall and Yen are at the two extremes of a technology that previously silently changed the way we communicated and now allows us to establish those communications in a secure and private way, and even bypass geo-blocks such as those that are imposed to prevent access to certain content in specific countries. “It was a very low-level technology – simple and versatile in approach – so you could build a lot on it,” the Microsoft executive reasoned.
Past: a matter of efficiency
During its first 15 years of existence, these systems were an indispensable but practically unknown tool outside the business environment. They were born at the dawn of the Internet, when the network of networks was a handful of modems that communicated with each other and companies began to explore the possibilities of this new form of connection.
“We had a bank of 64 modems with 64 cables connecting them to the server. I remember the boss telling me: ‘This is an insult to my intelligence.’ And at the time we were preparing to support 256 modems, ”recalls Pall. In anticipation of the growing tangle of cables that threatened to be deployed at Microsoft to allow remote employee access to the company network, the developer and his team were tasked with simplifying the system. His proposal was the germ of VPNs: “What if we could virtualize modem-to-modem connections and pretend the whole network is a single modem? ”.
The early obsolete method of establishing these virtual links was dubbed the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol – PPTP – and was launched in 1996 and earned Pall the prestigious Pall Innovation Award. Year awarded by PC Magazine. “For me, this solidified the idea if you can create new things, you can have a tremendous impact. Especially from a company like Microsoft. Because whatever we implemented was suddenly in the hands of a billion people, ”the executive reasons.
The scale to which the giant Bill Gates was already moving in those years, with Windows 95 fresh out of the oven, practically guaranteed the acceptance of his ways of doing it. “Anything you could build on Windows was going to be used a lot,” says Pall, who was also part of the team that was responsible for integrating the necessary functionalities for the Wi-Fi connection in Windows XP. “At the end of the 90s we were convinced that we were responsible for hundreds of millions of users and that the internet had become popular. Working on the components of these connections was one of the most responsible jobs in the company ”.
Present: security issue
Pall never imagined that one day he would see his children using the evolved version of that solution to connect to their Netflix accounts from Europe and thus be able to see the content available in their country here. But this trap it is perhaps the most irrelevant application of the skills that virtual private networks have developed. Jumping over the increasingly frequent geoblocks on the modern internet allows citizens who are trapped within them to access information and communication possibilities that would otherwise be banned.
From Yen’s point of view, VPNs have jumped out of the business arena to reach the general public in three major waves. The first, censorship. “A VPN assigns you a different IP address – device identifier – and that allows you to create a tunnel with which to bypass any filter on the network,” explains the founder of Proton Technologies. Thus, a computer that is in Spain can, by work and thanks to a virtual private network, connect to the internet as if it were in any other country.
Then came the need for privacy. “Many people are not comfortable knowing that Internet service providers can monitor everything they do on their browsers.” And finally, came the example of Netflix. “This is the one that really popularized VPNs, because different platforms started blocking their content, so if you were on vacation in another country, suddenly you couldn’t use your subscription.”
ProtonVPN was not the first service that allowed all of the above, but it was the first to offer these options with an open source platform where anyone with the necessary knowledge can verify the robustness of the system. “The free or paid options that were available were either unsafe or private,” Yen explains. “We entered this market to offer something free, open source, publicly audited and protected by European privacy laws.”
Future: a matter of time
From the point of view of the founder of Proton Technologies, VPNs still have a long life ahead of them. He refers to his three reasons for being: “Censorship is not going to disappear, in fact it is increasing; privacy issues are still there, and more and more people are aware, and content blocks are difficult to predict, although I think they will eventually disappear. Be it a growing or shrinking market, we will be in it because it is part of our mission ”. What Yen doesn’t believe is that VPNs as we know them now are going to change a lot: “I don’t think there is much more progress we can make. When I think about where I want the industry to be 25 years from now, I hope it’s a place where my business doesn’t need to exist because there is no longer censorship. The ideal situation is not that we all have a VPN by default, but that by default we do not need it ”.
Pall no longer thinks about connections, but he continues to pursue the next great invention. “I am like a kid in a candy store when it comes to technology. Now I work in artificial intelligence with the same level of enthusiasm, “he says. “The only difference is that I am older now. I can’t work until two in the morning seven days a week. But now I focus on the creative aspect, on what else could we do ”.