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What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

And Why You Should Be Using One for Online Privacy

Who do you trust with your information when you are online?

One favorite trick of hackers is to use an official sounding public Wi-Fi hotspot, then sit back and see who connects. As more people are working remotely, away from secure business networks, internet privacy and security are more important now than ever. Using your own Virtual Private Network (VPN) to connect up when you are at a coffee shop, airport or even at home, is one way to help prevent bad actors from stealing your data.

Here are a few other scenarios where VPNs are useful:

+ In some parts of the world, information on the internet is censored, or the government monitors citizens to see if they are viewing content considered subversive. A VPN allows privacy and viewing of blocked content. Removing blocked content also means a person using VPN can tap into entertainment they would not otherwise have access to.

+ Transferring documents via the internet that contain banking information, social security numbers, signatures, private or sensitive personal or business information are subject to hacking. A VPN makes these files unreadable to outside sources while in transit with transport Layer Security (TLS), creating a virtual encrypted “tunnel” between your device and a VPN server.

+ The Federal Communications Commission has also struck down Net Neutrality Rules, allowing “throttling.” Essentially, a big company like Amazon can pay to have their website load faster than a competitor, or the mom and pop shop down the street. It also opens the door for consumers to be charged more for browsing certain types of data intensive content, like streaming videos on Netflix. Since a VPN anonymizes browsing, those using one would theoretically not be affected by throttling.

Nearly one in three consumers use a VPN service for security purposes, to safely access public Wi-FI, to share data securely or avoid surveillance.

What is a VPN and how does it work
A virtual private network is a piece of software that helps to make you more anonymous online by creating a secure, encrypted connection. A VPN effectively displays your computer, laptop or mobile device as being in another location by cloaking your computer’s actual IP address behind the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. While you are connected to a VPN, your data is routed to a server operated by the VPN service, essentially making you part the company’s network. No one, including your ISP, can see your information between your computer and the VPN server, until your traffic exits the VPN server and enters the public internet.

Laptop with VPN

As part of the process, a VPN protects you against mass data collection from advertisers and criminals. Tracking software monitors where the same IP address appears across the internet, monitoring your online movements. With an IP address that is changed by a VPN, it is much harder for advertisers or hackers to track you.

What a VPN does not protect against
Regarding security, VPNs do not prevent viruses or malware. It is important you always use effective antivirus software when browsing the internet. Using a VPN can’t protect you from bad actors on the Dark Web, or if you are tricked into giving up your data to a phishing attack.

Benefits for travelers
Even if a company has set up a legitimate public Wi-Fi network, you don’t know what employees or vendors have administrative access to the network. A savvy bad actor on the same network could also access your information. Since a VPN prevents anyone on the same network from intercepting your net traffic, they can prevent these “Man in the middle” attacks. When traveling, you can take your VPN along with you, and access networks at hotels, airports, and coffee shops more securely.

Where you travel is also kept private. Each device you use generates a label, or IP address. It is possible for advertisers or hackers to track your movements by looking to see where the IP address appears. Since VPNs also hide your device’s IP address behind the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to, your location will be much harder to track online.

Free VPN services
While paid VPNs are affordable and feature rich, there are some decent free VPN services. If you just want a VPN to use on a business trip or for occasional use, a free account may be fine. Keep in mind that free versions will have limitations, such as allowing a limited amount of device connections, setting a low monthly data allowance or having few server locations.

Choosing a paid VPN account
Here is what to look for when shopping for a VPN:

+ The number of licenses for simultaneous connections that come with your fee. Most let you connect up to five devices per account. This would include any combination of phones, computers, laptops, tablets, gaming devices or routers. If you have any smart home devices, they cannot run VPN software on their own, but you can get the same effect by connecting all smart devices through your router, and connecting your router to the VPN.

+ The number of servers available. When comparison shopping, a greater number of servers can mean better capacity to handle heavy data traffic. Plus, wherever you travel, you’ll have access to your VPN.

+ The number of locations in which the company has servers. Wide distribution of a network is good, to provide numerous spoof locations.

+ Speed on a VPN. Having your internet signal take a circuitous route will affect browsing speed, and some VPNs perform better than others in this arena. VPNs can handle HD video streaming, but you probably won’t want to run any games or watch a 4K video while using the service. While most people find the speed fine for normal applications, you can review my recent article on improving your internet speed.

A VPN can be blocked by Netflix
If you paid for Netflix in the US, but your VPN is using a server in England (for example), Netflix and other video streaming services may block access to their programming. They view your device as being in another country, and you are not entitled to that country’s programming. Licensing deals for programming vary from country to country. You can still access Netflix on many VPNs, as long as you stick to a server in the country where you signed up for the video streaming service.

So which VPN is best?
Though review lists will vary from site to site, ExpressVPN and Surfshark appear at the top of most lists. Tech Radar recently published this list of what it considers the best VPN’s.

+ ExpressVPN
+ Surfshark
+ NordVPN
+ IPVanish
+ CyberGhost

There are some fake VPN’s out there, so if a deal seems to good to be true, it probably is. Stick with the well-reviewed and tested industry leaders.

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