How to Use a VPN or Smart DNS to Stream Content From Anywhere
More and more people are turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) after learning that social media platforms and search engines are tracking individual online activities and selling this information to advertisers. The recent popularity of VPNs is leading to some sites blocking them, especially those that host geo-blocked content. Video streaming sites including Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are some of the most popular culprits.
Want to watch U.S. Netflix shows while travelling abroad? If Netflix recognizes that you are connecting to a VPN, you won’t be able to.
With users of these sites being forced to choose between foregoing privacy or avoiding blocked sites altogether, some have turned to the use of Smart DNS services as a VPN alternative. Understanding what they are and how to use them in conjunction with a VPN can allow you to continue to maintain your privacy and security while also giving you access to your favorite regionally-locked streaming content.
What is a DNS?
The Domain Name System (DNS) operates on the Internet somewhat similar to how the postal service works in the physical world. When you mail a letter, it first goes to your local post office - a subsidiary of the world-wide mail delivery system. Your local post office gives your letter a postmark indicating the location from where the letter originated and a date stamp.
The DNS similarly handles Internet requests. A request to access a website travels from your IP address to a local DNS server, giving that request a location "postmark." From there, it travels through the DNS system to the website. Once the website grants access, this access travels back through the system to your local DNS server and back to your IP address. After this whole process, which takes a split second, the website appears in your browser on your computer with knowledge of your location and time of visit.
What is a Smart DNS?
Some websites block certain locations from access based on the origin, or geo-location, of the request. A Smart DNS can bypass location restrictions by cloaking the origin of the request. Going back to our mail delivery example, imagine if you attempted to order something online and the company would not allow you to purchase the item because of restrictions based on your location. You could have a friend order the item for you from an unrestricted location. They could order it, receive it, and send it to you from their location after it arrives. With a network of friends all over the world, you would have the ability to buy anything from any company by circumventing all location restrictions.
This is how a Smart DNS works. Your request starts at your IP address and goes to a Smart DNS server rather than your local DNS server. The Smart DNS server sends your request to another DNS server at a location to which the website allows access and gives your request the "postmark" at that location. This process makes the request appear to originate from an unrestricted location and give you access to content from that region.
When would you use a Smart DNS?
A Smart DNS is best used when you are attempting to access content that is restricted based on your geo-location from sites with little to no security concerns. It is important to understand that while Smart DNS connections are very effective at spoofing your location, they are not secure, and they do not hide your IP address.
An IP address, on the Internet, operates more as a source of identity, similar to how a Social Security Number (SSN) identifies you as an individual. It’s how your Internet Service Provide (ISP) logs data from your computer and provides hackers a direct line to your PC.
To websites, the Smart DNS system makes it appear that you are present in a different location. Websites still can see your IP address, but it looks as though it originates in a different location. Because of this, your personal information, online activities, and data are not secure while using a Smart DNS service. You would not want to use a Smart DNS service to access personal information such as your bank account.
A Smart DNS can, however, be useful on trustworthy sites that are recognizing your VPN and restricting you from regional-locked content.
How is a VPN different than a Smart DNS?
While both VPNs and Smart DNS services use proxy servers to spoof location, a VPN encrypts the process beginning at its origin point so your actions cannot be recognized by your IPS, hackers, or through third-party surveillance. A request on a Smart DNS service is still visible to these same entities. Because of the lack of encryption, a Smart DNS service is faster than a VPN and operates at the same speed as a local DNS connection. A VPN completely hides your IP address and any data associated with it.
When should I use a VPN or Smart DNS?
Because VPNs and DNS services both use proxy servers, you cannot use them at the same time. Your request will either travel to a DNS server or a VPN server. If the site you are accessing is only being restricted because your access request is coming from a VPN server, you may consider using a VPN service that offers split-tunneling. Split-tunneling keeps your personal data secure yet still allows streaming from websites like Netflix and Hulu with no encryption.
Always attempt a secure connection first to protect your data and online activities from prying eyes. If a streaming site is blocking your VPN, attempt to switch server locations first to find a secure route for streaming. If you are unable to access a site with your VPN, turn off the VPN or use a Smart DNS service. Use a Smart DNS service when your geo-location is the sole reason there are restrictions on your requests to websites and you cannot bypass this restriction with your VPN.