If you …
- never use your laptop away from home,
- never use public WiFi,
- never buy things online or
- do anything online you might want to hide,
… you’re probably OK without a VPN,
Let’s say you’re in the Denver airport. Your flight has been delayed indefinitely, there’s a blizzard outside and you’d love to pass the time streaming a movie. It’s risky to use the free airport WiFi, right? Should you use it anyway?
Or say you want to buy something online while you’re away from home;
Or, you’re in a country that blocks access to your go-to websites;
Or, you’d like to watch BBC iPlayer from outside the UK.
If so, you need a VPN — a Virtual Private Network.
Virtual Private Networks
Picture a tube between you and a friend that prevents anyone else from eavesdropping on your conversation. As soon as your conversation is over, the tube self-destructs.
That’s the idea behind a VPN. It’s a server that re-routes internet activity, masks IP addresses, encrypts data and can make it appear the user is in another location.
What’s an IP address? IP stands for Internet Protocol. Your “IP address” is the home address, so to speak, linked to all of your internet activity.
Why would you want to hide your IP address?
- To protect yourself when using public WiFi, like in a hotel, library, coffee shop, airport, or when using a WiFi hotspot.
- Keep your private searches private.*
- Browse websites without leaving traces of your identity.*
- Access streaming services when you aren’t home.
- Keep hackers from tracking you online.
- Access websites that are not available to the geographical local of your current IP address.
- Bypass surveillance and national internet censorship, content filters, bans or blacklisting.
When you sign onto the internet, you aren’t actually connecting directly. You connect to an Internet Service Provider (ISP), which connects and grants access to the internet. To make sure your information gets transported accurately and efficiently, you are assigned an IP address by the service provider. When you’re at home, your IP address is assigned by your ISP. When you’re anywhere else you’re given a different IP, assigned by the coffee shop, hotel or library ISP. Public ISP’s are notoriously vulnerable to hackers and spies.
A VPN connects you to a private server and “loans” you an IP address. Once connected, your activity appears to originate where the VPN server is. The VPN also creates a temporary private channel, sometimes referred to as a “tunnel,” which encrypts your data.
To dig into details about VPNs and what makes some safer than others, read this helpful article from Lifewire.
Which VPN should you choose? If you’re not comfortable with technology, opt for a service you pay for. Rates are pretty low (I pay about $3 a month), and set up is easy. Below are links to articles with reviews and information on how to figure out what’s best for you. If you don’t want to pay, some browsers like Opera and Aloha have built-in, free VPNs. They are less secure than a paid service, but much better than nothing.
Bottom line: most of us use the internet in situations that make our private and valuable information accessible to hackers and spies. A VPN is an easy and inexpensive way to protect yourself and your data.
Do you use a VPN? Any tips?
- A VPN is not a substitute for a firewall. A firewall protects the data on your computer. A VPN protects your data online.
- Nor is a VPN the same as a network which is designed specifically to protect privacy and anonymity. If you look at pornography online, a VPN won’t hide your activity. If you live under a dictator and want to start a protest that might put you or your friends in danger, you need a network like The Onion Router, aka TOR.
Sources, reviews, tips: