VPNs and the HTTPS protocol are two sides of the same encryption coin; a pair of solutions that have little to do with one another outside of their general goal of protecting your data online. As such, they’re not meant to be alternative technologies but those that complement each other, ultimately enabling a safer browsing experience.
What HTTPS encryption is (not)
But if you’re merely interested in the technical differences between the two, let’s start with the HTTPS protocol, aka the tech that often makes people confused about what “end-to-end” security means. You see, HTTPS encryption is a server-side solution that starts and ends with whatever server you’re trusting to communicate with a given domain.
HTTPS is what ensures your ISP can’t automatically tell what Pirate Bay pages you’ve been browsing even though they can still see you communicating with pirate-bay.net in real time. This is pretty much what the so-called SSL (and TLS) VPNs come down to – an encryption layer that primarily exists to protect web apps, not end users.
How VPN encryption fills in the blanks
When looking at virtual private networks, particularly in regards to how they compare to HTTPS encryption, we’re usually talking about IPsec VPNs. This would be the actual tunneling software that protects communications from your end to the point that not even your ISP can tell what you’re doing, outside of the fact you’re using a particular VPN service.
In combination with HTTPS, IPsec VPNs protect your data and – by extension – online identity in an extremely reliable manner. Using the former doesn’t require any special effort on your part, at least not any longer, seeing how most modern browsers will actively prevent you from even accessing HTTP-only websites. As for VPNs, that’s still a conscious choice you have to make – and you’d be naive not to in this day and age.