If you’re privacy-minded, the internet is an increasingly uncomfortable place to spend time. The services and software you use, even your ISP (or Internet Service Provider), are all intent on slurping up and selling as much information about you as possible. Tech pundits often suggest that privacy-seekers use a VPN to connect to the web. It’s good advice, as far as that goes, but it takes some explaining.
What Is a VPN?
Decades ago, computers could be big mainframes that supported multiple users and multiple jobs, or individual PCs that supported one user at a time. Businesses quickly discovered that they could network those PCs together, and that networked personal computers could do many of the same jobs as mainframes.
Some of those computer networks were private, meaning outsiders had no access. Others were public, allowing selected outsiders — vendors and customers, or staff from a sister company — access to nonsensitive functions and information. Eventually the internet became the ultimate public network, and in the 1990s, as businesses began to make use of it, engineers at Microsoft came up with a way to let a public network securely access a private network.
They called it a virtual private network, or VPN. It encrypted the private portion of the network and information passing to it so that prying eyes on the public network couldn’t see it. The usual metaphor is to speak of the VPN as a “tunnel” through the public portion of the network, concealing everything inside from the outsider’s view. Can you imagine having your own personal tunnel across town, insulating you from traffic, smog, weather, pigeon droppings and potential muggers all at the same time? That’s the basic idea of a VPN.
How Does a VPN Work?
Whenever you connect to the internet, you make certain information about your computer or mobile device available. Your ISP and any site you visit can see your internet protocol (IP) address, which tells them where you are. Your browser also lets them know several details about you, like the operating system you’re running.
When you run a VPN on your device, this changes. Instead of your traffic all going through your ISP’s servers, where it can and will be routinely harvested for data-mining and sale, it goes to the VPN company’s servers. Your data is encrypted by the app when it leaves your device, and then it’s funneled through the VPN’s servers, where your IP address and other personally identifiable data are stripped out.
When your data leaves the VPN’s servers, it shows an anonymous IP address assigned by the server rather than your own VPN address. To prying eyes it appears as so much gibberish, coming from a meaningless point of origin.
What Does a VPN Hide?
For anyone who’s at all concerned about internet security, using a VPN is an attractive proposition. For a start, it’s how you opt out of the surveillance economy. Your ISP can’t see your private data or track your travels around the web, and neither can most advertisers. It gets a lot more difficult for government agencies, too, regardless of whether it’s the Chinese or the NSA that you’re worried about.
If you use an internet connection to conduct your business, a VPN can protect your sensitive data from competitors. For private individuals, it adds an extra layer of safety to online banking or purchases. That’s especially true if you use public Wi-Fi, which is a happy hunting ground for hackers.
As an added bonus, a VPN will also let you get around geographic restrictions on streaming services. If you want to watch a blacked-out game or see a show that’s on UK or Canadian Netflix but not US Netflix, a VPN can do that. In short, a VPN gives you back a useful measure of online privacy. It’s not bulletproof, though.
Shortcomings of a VPN
For all the positives a VPN brings, there are also negatives. First, encrypting your traffic and routing it through the VPN’s servers slows down your online experience. You may need to try a few before finding one you can live with. Another crucial question is trust, because the VPN itself sees all of your data. Choosing a shady VPN is like hiring a burglar to guard your home.
If you should become embroiled in a legal battle at some point, and the VPN company is subject to US jurisdiction, logs of your online activity could be subpoenaed as evidence. There’s also a risk that sites or ISPs may actively begin detecting and blocking VPNs to protect their revenue streams. Governments can also make them illegal, though the risk of that is lower — although not zero — in the United States.
While technical issues are sometimes a concern — a glitch in your VPN software might leave you temporarily exposed — most of a VPN’s vulnerabilities rest with you. To put it another way, the strongest of vaults won’t protect you if you choose to open the door. If you’re logged into Google or Facebook, for example, they’ll still be able to see what you do. You’re also still vulnerable to malware and phishing, which can reveal your real location and identity despite the VPN.w
You Get What You Pay For
So is a VPN worth it? It depends what you want it for, but for most users the answer is a qualified yes. The difficulty lies in actually choosing one. Some VPNs are more reliable than others, some perform better and some are free while others are paid. Choosing between them is not easy, and can stump even seasoned observers.
Choosing a VPN
Let’s start with free VPNs. These occasionally come from companies that are already known quantities, like browser makers. Opera already offers a free VPN to all of its users, for example, and Firefox is testing one as of late 2019. They’re not as secure as stand-alone VPNs, and they only protect you while you’re using their browser, but the price is right. Other “free” VPNs are ad-supported, and some are outright malicious.
Paid VPNs are usually inexpensive and offer some clear advantages. They’ll usually give you more protection and faster performance, and in fact may come from a company you already trust, like the makers of your virus-checking software. Players such as NordVPN and ExpressVPN are stand-alone companies, but they are market leaders because of their privacy-centric policies and strong code.
If you decide to go ahead with a VPN, choosing between apps and providers isn’t easy. You can start by defining what you want it to do: Watching blacked-out games is a smaller hill to climb than getting serious internet security. Some aren’t available across all platforms and operating systems, so that can rule out a number of contenders if you want to use the same VPN across all of your devices.
Word of mouth from someone you trust is always helpful, though not perfect. So is comparing VPN reviews, though not all reviews and review sites are created equal. Some sites exist solely to funnel you to a specific VPN, for instance. Look for reviews from established security companies, educational and government pages or major sites such as “PC Magazine” and CNET.
Don’t just read the tl;dr summaries – look at the criteria the reviewers used to evaluate the products. You may have different priorities from the writers and make a different choice from the same information.
Only you get to decide how secure you want to be online and how much time and effort you’re willing to put into it. Installing and using a VPN isn’t a completely bulletproof solution, but it increases your internet security substantially with minimal effort and little or no cost.
If it’s combined with software to protect against viruses and malware, and either a hardware or software firewall, you’ll have as much protection as a nontechnical civilian user can hope for.
Here at Spokeo, we aim to arm you with the information you need to live a safe and fulfilling life in the digital age. Curious about what we do? Learn more about us here.