If you're on your laptop using the free Wi-Fi at your neighborhood coffee house, there's a chance every keystroke you make is being watched by a hacker who's after your credit card numbers, banking passwords, and browsing history. Fortunately, a VPN can act like a virtual suit of armor, shielding your internet connection from the outside.
What is a VPN?
Simply put, a virtual private network
(VPN) is a way to route your computer, smartphone, or tablet's network connection through an alternate server before connecting to an internet site or service. Usually, this new connection is protected by encryption.
Here's how a VPN works: if you were to try and access a website through a traditional network configuration, your device would first connect to the network before connecting to the site you're visiting. If you were to use a VPN, however, your device connects to a client that encrypts your data and routes it through a different server before connecting to the site.
Ultimately, this is more than just a way to mask your IP address - it's a way to keep all of your personal and confidential information from falling into the wrong hands. In addition to the encryption benefits, the site or service you're connecting to will view your "location" as that of the VPN server - not of your home or business.
Why should you use a VPN?
To shield you from hackers
For starters, hacking has become a widespread problem. A new hacker attack occurs at a rate of every 39 seconds on average, according to one recent study conducted by the University of Maryland
. It's a problem affecting approximately 1 out of every 3 Americans every year. Since 2013, there have been about 3.8 million records stolen
from breaches on a daily basis.
Beyond hackers, there is the issue of personal privacy and data. It's not just basic personal information that's sought after; your demographics, hobbies, interests, favorite TV shows, and political beliefs are all gold for large corporations. Companies like Facebook and Google have built billion dollar industries based on mining this data and using it for advertising.
This isn't inherently a bad thing; it has lead to an age where advertising is actually relevant and allowed companies to create products we actually want. The problem, however, is that this more or less takes place without your knowledge or consent. Unless you've read the Terms of Service for every website and application you've used, you have probably unknowingly agreed to some form of data collection.
So when this data is in the hands of a corporation, they use it to sell you things. That may be rather benign, but unfortunately, they might not be the only ones who see it. If a large company has a security breach or if they are subpoenaed by the government, your private information could find its way into the hands of someone you weren't expecting.
Top VPN uses
A VPN can't protect you from sharing information with companies through social media platforms and apps, but it can ensure that certain things are kept private. These are some of the main features a VPN can be used for.
Internet Protocol (IP) Masking
- An IP address is a series of numbers separated by periods that helps identify a computer on a network. Outside of a VPN, this address, which leads straight back to your computer, is not difficult to acquire. Because a VPN routes your connection through another network, it essentially masks your IP by assigning a different one.
Protecting your internet connection
- Public or Guest Wi-Fi connections are automatic targets for hackers. They are usually open to anyone who can connect to them, which makes it a digitally unsanitary place to be. With special devices, hackers can place themselves in between you and the public Wi-Fi, or use it as a sneaky door into your computer. A VPN can essentially turn one of these open, unsanitary connections into a safe way to connect to the internet. Whether you're in a hotel or a coffee shop, using a VPN on a public network is a must.
Protecting your browsing history
- Most sites and search engines keep detailed records of where you go and what you do on the internet. Again, this isn't always a bad thing - it can help you find that chocolate chip cookie recipe you saw last week or make navigating to your favorite sites easier. That having been said, there are times where you don't want your search queries saved and viewed by others. A VPN can help you keep that private.
Circumventing geographic restrictions
- There are a number of websites, such as streaming services, that have restrictions based on your physical, geographic location. Because a VPN routes your connection through another network, some services allow you to choose where the network is physically located.
For example, if a certain website is blocking all traffic from the US, you can set your VPN to route your connection through Sydney Australia. The website now thinks you are in the land down under, and allows you to access their content. This is especially helpful for streaming services that might only offer some content to subscribers in particular regions.
This feature can also be used to test certain aspects of your own website. For example, if you want your content to appear in a different language for visitors from Japan, you can set your VPN to route through Tokyo and test the functionality.
What should you look for in a VPN service?
As you start your search for the right VPN service, know that they are not all created equally. Some are expensive, some are difficult to set up, and some simply can't be trusted. Fortunately, there are a number of articles that review the best VPN services for you
The following are several factors you should consider when browsing the various VPN services.
- There are many VPN services that are free, but they usually aren't very good. They are usually either slow or limit the amount of data you can send and receive while using their service. Most subscriptions are under $10 a month and offer discounts for yearly subscriptions rather than monthly.
- As mentioned above, some VPNs will limit the amount of data you can transfer through the VPN. Usually, this is associated with free services, but some paid plans will place limits as well. This may or may not be a problem for you depending on the kinds of things you do while on the internet. If you simply use it to read emails and browse websites, a low data cap should be fine. However, if you stream high-quality video, you will quickly find yourself at the limit.
- Many VPN services will throttle your internet speed when you connect to them. Remember, when you connect to a VPN, you're not just using your connection to access a site or service - you are now using a secondary, virtual network that can have its own speed limits and restrictions. Like your regular internet service provider, some VPNs will offer different "levels" of speed for varying monthly costs. Again, what you choose will depend on your personal internet needs.
- If you're using a VPN, you expect that your data and privacy are being protected. However, data is valuable, and not all services respect your anonymity. Before signing up for anything, read through the fine print before signing up with a VPN provider to make sure they don't keep records of traffic.
- Because many people want a VPN to route their connection through specific geographic locations, the physical location of their servers can make a difference. For example, a service that only has servers in the United States might not be right for you if your goal is to appear as though you're located in Europe.
Is there a downside to using a VPN?
One of the main issues you may encounter with a VPN is one of performance. Because your device is no longer connecting directly to the site or service you're attempting to access, your internet connection may seem a little slower. For many, however, this is a small price to pay for the added security.
Finally, most VPN services have a client or program that is used to log on and access it. This means you have to create a username and password. If you don't create a strong password
, you could potentially compromise the protection a VPN would otherwise provide, giving you a false sense of security.