Amid heightened public awareness regarding the security and privacy of data online, the virtual private network (VPN) market is experiencing tremendous growth. Since the FCC repealed the net neutrality law in 2017, this has only intensified as consumers react against the legal right of internet service providers (ISPs) to sell customer browser history to third parties for the purpose of distributing tailored advertising content. Issues of net neutrality notwithstanding, there are a number of legitimate reasons why you might want to consider using a VPN. Before you determine whether investing in one might make sense for you, here are essential facts to know:
What does it actually do? A virtual private network provides an encrypted connection over the internet in order to ensure that sensitive information is transmitted safely. Basically, it layers a private network across a public network so that unauthorized users can’t intercept your internet data. As Forbes explains, a VPN will encapsulate your data so that each packet gets placed inside another packet, similar to how letters are placed in an envelope so that they can’t be read en route.
Why would you use a VPN? Not only can a VPN protect your data from hackers or anyone else who might try to eavesdrop on your web traffic, but it can also help safeguard your identity online and enable you to access network resources outside of your local area network (LAN) by providing a secure connection between you and a remote server.
In addition to preventing your data from falling into the hands of cybercriminals, the “virtual tunnel” created by a VPN also keeps your ISP from knowing the details of your online activities, which can then be supplied to advertisers or other interested parties. If you’re concerned about mass surveillance, a VPN can also provide some measure of anonymity by masking your identity online. Because your device shows the IP address of the VPN server instead of its own unique number, your online activities are more difficult (although not impossible) to trace.
What situations might warrant a VPN? Certainly, VPNs are popular among criminals seeking to evade detection and carry out illicit activities, but it would be a mistake to think that there aren’t plenty of compelling reasons why law-abiding individuals should consider one as an effective tool to boost their security and privacy online. Just a few of these include:
To secure a public Wi-Fi connection: As Mashable points out, it’s relatively easy for hackers to spy on your online activities at a location such as a coffee shop (or restaurant, airport, hotel or other venue), even if a password is required to log in to the network there. What’s more, it can be difficult to ascertain whether the network is actually what it purports to be. According to PC Magazine, “Just because it’s called Starbucks_Wi-Fi doesn’t mean it’s really owned by the well-known coffee purveyor.” With encryption provided by a VPN, you can shop, work or surf the web while you’re out and about without a high risk of exposing your credit card numbers or other sensitive information.
To keep you connected when visiting foreign countries: Are you planning to travel to a country that restricts access to certain websites and streaming content? A VPN might allow you to gain access to services that you use back home. At the same time; however, you should never assume that using a VPN will make your online activities impossible to trace or that using a VPN is legal in another country. Also keep in mind that VPNs may be required to comply with a warrant or subpoena, just as an ISP would. For more information on this issue, read Government Technology’s article here.
You work remotely: With an added layer of security created by a VPN, you can send and receive private data across shared or public networks as if they were on the same network. This can be helpful for students and employees that need to access the organization’s resources when outside of its network.
What kind of a financial investment does it require? In most cases, using a VPN service will cost you less than $10 per month. For help in selecting one, visit PC World’s Best VPN Services of 2018: Reviews and buying advice. Although you can also find free VPN providers, many experts recommend caution with non-paid services, pointing to the fact that these providers must make money somehow, and therefore may be more inclined to use your data as an income source.
Although it’s undeniable that a VPN can enhance your privacy and security online, it’s important to understand that there are limits to the protections available to VPN users. Like almost any aspect of the internet-connected world, VPNs can be infected by malware. And although your VPN will make it harder for anyone to snoop on your online activities, understand that it does not completely eliminate your footprint on the internet. If an entity or individual is motivated enough to learn about an individual’s online activities and has sufficient resources, it’s not impossible that they would do this. For more insight as to what a VPN can and cannot do to protect your identity and data online, check out "6 Common Myths of VPN Debunked" from TechRadar.