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A few days ago, a colleague and myself were having a discussion specifically on site-to-site VPNs. My understanding, and how I was taught, are that all encrypted tunnels are virtual private networks because:

  • They use a virtual interface to establish connectivity.

  • They use strong encryption to ensure privacy of the connection.

  • They provide network connectivity in some manner between hosts or networks.

In my experience, I have seen this and it also explained as such but cannot find a specific result online that is explicit enough. Some things that I have seen suggest a virtual private network is only when two private networks are connected over a public network. That can’t be entirely true because I have seen VPN implementations to specific enclaves within a hospital network.

The specific gripe began when talking about an encrypted tunnel between two buildings of the same organization (or departments within the same organization). Considering it’s not traversing a “public” line, it’s not a VPN. I disagreed vehemently.

Is my understanding of virtual private networks correct?

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    Encrypted tunnels can be created without setting up a VPN. For example, an encrypted tunnel can be created using SSH. See security.berkeley.edu/education-awareness/… for some interesting reading on this subject.
    – mti2935
    Aug 20, 2022 at 18:12
  • Then is the requisite a network-to-network encrypted tunnel to be considered a VPN? Would that be a more appropriate statement (based on what you linked). Aug 20, 2022 at 19:44
  • @mti2935 this article discusses setting up an "SSH VPN", though I have not tried it myself help.ubuntu.com/community/SSH_VPN Aug 21, 2022 at 4:13
  • @multithr3at3d nails it with his answer below. Both an ssh tunnel and a VPN provide an encrypted connection (usually over a public network) from point a to point b. With an ssh tunnel, the connection is typically simply between two hosts, usually over a specific port. But, a VPN expands on this by 'virtually' making it as if the network interface of a remote user at point a is connected to a private network at point b. However, these terms seem to often get conflated.
    – mti2935
    Aug 21, 2022 at 11:58
  • Yeah @multithr3at3d really did nail it. My background in security started with networking. From a router or switch perspective the statement is likely true. From all other angles, it is not. It helped me really solidify my knowledge on the matter. Aug 21, 2022 at 16:37

2 Answers 2

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The concept of VPN revolves around giving the ability to access a network remotely, ultimately whether from other private or public networks. The definition is likely less firm than you imagine, and VPN use cases have surely evolved beyond what was originally envisioned.

Note that Wikipedia's article on VPNs states that encryption is not inherent, though it is something we always expect today.

You could also have encrypted tunnels that operate at higher layers (e.g. SSH port forwarding), which wouldn't meet the definition of VPN since you are remotely accessing particular services rather than a network.

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  • Awesome. I think this clarifies my knowledge on the subject. Thank you! Aug 21, 2022 at 16:31
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You can not trust anyone anymore. VPNs are virtual, they don't exist physically. Setups from a VPN may make you more vulnerable, and you will not know it. OF course, someone would need a reason for that. At home, you are at the mercies of the ISP. At work, you are at the mercies of the IT dept, and online on the web at the mercies of the hackers, which are Gov Contractor Employees. You are never hidden, and you would be a national threat if you were.

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    Sorry, this doesn't have anything to do with the question at hand. Aug 21, 2022 at 4:14
  • Sorry, I don't understand this answer. I'm not sure how it's related. Aug 21, 2022 at 16:36

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