The Internet has no shortage of fancy buzzword terms like cloud computing, machine learning, and the metaverse. To the average user or tech lover, these terms might not mean very much since ultimately, it all comes down to your own comfort level with technology, and the features and gadgets you want to use. The term ‘VPN’ may also fall under the buzzword umbrella and you might have seen the term peppered through various YouTube ads as well as some news articles concerning international affairs or global security issues. But what is a VPN, what do they do, do they make the internet more dangerous or more secure, and ultimately, do YOU need a VPN?
What is a VPN?
VPN is short for “Virtual Private Network” and you can really piece the words together to get a good visual on what this type of network hopes to achieve. A “network” is a group of interconnected computers while “private” implies that network access is closed off to the public, thus increasing security for all computers on that network. Naturally, these computers are physically close to each other to ensure that no barriers can interfere with the way they all interact. When you add “virtual” into the mix, you are bringing the benefits and traits of a private network to computers physically connected across a public network which is basically the Internet.
So think of VPNs as a privacy layer between your computer and the public Internet and the privacy layer comes via a VPN provider with its own network. You can also think of it this way: as using your Internet Service Provider or ISP to connect to a remote network and then within that remote network, your Internet activity is masquerading as that remote network’s ISP instead. Kind of like your internet activity wearing a mask or disguise.
What are VPNs used for?
The use cases of a VPN are not immediately obvious when you connect to one for the first time because using your Internet and accessing the Web will feel mostly the same as accessing the Web without one. However, it is the special amenities within that private network that can benefit you directly.
Isolation From a Public Network: protecting personal data
A VPN can serve as your first line of defense against security and privacy breaches in a network outside your home. Think of public Wi-Fi hotspots, accessing the Internet from your friend’s place, or even your workplace as public networks that may not offer the security you need when you wish to access sensitive websites. What kind of websites would you use a VPN to access? Naturally there are all kinds of nefarious options, but for those of us with non-criminal or concerning surfing habits, we’d be more likley to use them for this like online banking, or accessing our credit card or other personal financial information. Even if you think your computer is secure and other computers in the network cannot access any sensitive data in your system, the network still serves as a gateway between you and the Internet and whatever data requests you make must pass through that gateway and could be exposed especially if not encrypted. Leave it to the VPN to handle that encryption.
Access Geo-Restricted Websites
Because it is easy to get the location of an IP address, website providers can deny access to certain individuals by using location as a criterion. Online streaming services commonly do this for licensing reasons or their servers might not have sufficient bandwidth to handle a global audience. On a more practical plane, certain TV apps or online channels are not available to Canadians, for example, so a VPN could provide access to American TV that’s not available at home. Many VPN providers offer numerous servers located in different areas of the world so you can use their location data and gain access to all kinds of geo-restricted sites.
Bypass ISP Restrictions
Your Internet Service Provider may also prevent you from visiting certain websites even if the websites themselves have no such access restrictions. The security-focused technologies that VPNs offer can make it tricky for ISPs to block and let you use their private networks as a “tunnel” of sorts connecting you from your computer to the restricted site.
Do I really need a VPN at home?
VPNs might not sound particularly useful if you avoid connecting to other public networks in the first place or if you have no issues with ISP or website restrictions. However, you must remember that the Internet itself is a public network and your ISP is the gateway assigning you an IP address which is like your digital footprint.
While it is not possible for anyone to obtain your IP address in all instances, there could be some cases of websites, particularly the ones that require logging in, to keep a record of your IP address. Because IP addresses are in the public domain of the Internet, it could be possible for these people to look up the address and gain some information such as your location.
In a world full of free online services, information is really the currency that providers seek and knowing the fact that these companies can keep your data won’t settle well if you really value your privacy. With a good VPN, the provider will assign you a different IP address from their own network while applying encryption to make it impossible for others to penetrate that layer and see your actual IP address.
How do I get a VPN?
The easiest way to get a VPN is to search for a reputable VPN provider offering access. A simple Google search will reveal lots of results and you’ll get a sense of how these VPN providers charge monthly or annually for the service. This is because virtual private networks involve servers and plenty of users and these servers have upkeep costs and the users contribute to bandwidth costs.
What do I need to watch out for with VPNs?
For the reason above, don’t be fooled by any service offering a free VPN service unless it is a limited trial because completely free VPN services use you as the product and likely harvest your data to sell to advertising companies.
What are some reputable VPN companies?
VPNs are kind of like hotels in the sense that they all have the core amenities but may not always provide the best service or reliability so be sure to do your own research and scrutinize the company before applying. Remember, the VPN itself serves as your Internet gateway and the only way to really benefit from a VPN is to really trust the service that it will keep your data secure and private.
VPN providers like TorGuard, WeVPN, Hide.me, ProtonVPN, and SurfShark are some of the handful of services that have a proven track record in providing excellent service. All these services do not collect activity logs, have no history of data breaches, offer 2-factor authentication (2FA), have a transparent leadership, offers good customer support, and has more than enough speedy services to access all the major streaming platforms.
What happens if you don’t have a VPN?
If you don’t have a VPN, the only entity gatekeeping your access to the Internet is your Internet Service Provider. With a single physical barrier, you enjoy the fastest speed your ISP offers at the expense of privacy. Yes, a VPN does include an extra layer which could reduce your speeds depending on the server you connect to but security leaks and data breaches can be stressful as soon as you become a victim of these. Depending on what you’re up to on the internet, paying for a good VPN service may be better safe than sorry.