What is a VPN and why do you need one
Have you ever been connected to a public Wi-Fi network and wondered if someone somewhere would be able to see your online activity? It’s a perfectly reasonable concern, given the forces arrayed against your privacy. With a Virtual Private Network (VPN), you can protect your information from prying eyes and restore a measure of privacy online.
What is a VPN and how does it work?
When turned on, the VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server operated by the VPN service. All your internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, so your data is safe from prying eyes along the way. As your traffic exits from the VPN server, your real IP address is hidden, hiding your identity and location.
To understand the value of a VPN, it is helpful to consider some specific scenarios in which a VPN can be used. Consider public Wi-Fi, perhaps at a coffee shop or airport. Usually, you can connect without a second thought. But do you know who might be monitoring the traffic on that network? Can you confirm that the Wi-Fi is legitimate, or maybe it’s being run by an evil person?
If you connect to the same public Wi-Fi using a VPN, you can rest assured that no one on that network will be able to see what you’re going to do — other users aren’t snooping for potential victims, not even the operators of the network itself. This last point is especially important, and everyone should keep in mind that it’s hard to tell if Wi-Fi is what it looks like. just because Call Starbucks_WiFi does not mean that it is truly owned by a well-known coffee provider.
When you are at home, you don’t have to worry about someone spying on your Wi-Fi because you own the network devices. But a VPN can help here, too. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) has insight into what you do online, and thanks to Congress, your ISP can sell anonymous data about its customers. This means that the company you pay for Internet access is making money from your data.
While it is true that companies like Google and Facebook monetize your online behavior, you are not necessarily Forced to use those services. If you suddenly decide to stop using Facebook, you may miss out on cute pet pictures and loud political talk from your friends and family, but you can still live a decent life, perhaps better. You don’t always have that option when it comes to your ISP, which controls your home’s gateway to the entire Internet.
While there are alternatives to Google and Facebook, most Americans have limited alternatives to their home ISP. In many regions there is only one ISP that provides wired Internet access. This makes recent changes that allow ISPs to sell data from their customers even more worrying. Subscribing to a shady system is one thing, and having no other choice in this matter is quite another.
Here’s another example: Let’s say you’re traveling abroad, and you turn on your browser, only to discover that you can only visit local versions of familiar websites. Maybe this just means a different Google Doodle graphic, but it could also mean that the language of the websites you’re visiting is now unfamiliar, that some sites are inaccessible, and that some streaming content is out of reach.
With a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different country and spoof your location. If you’re outside the US, you can return the VPN to a familiar location and access the Internet (mostly) as normal. You can also do it in reverse. From the comfort of your home, you can go to a remote VPN server, perhaps to access video streams that are not available in the US.
VPNs can also grant access to blocked websites. Some governments have decided that it is in their best interests to prevent certain websites from being accessed by all members of the population. With a VPN, it is possible to go through a tunnel to a different country with less oppressive policies, and access sites that would otherwise be blocked. And again, because VPNs encrypt all web traffic, they help protect the identity of people who connect to the open internet in this way. However, governments are wise in this matter, which is why we see VPN use banned in Russia and China. A VPN also does not guarantee complete protection, especially against a well-financed and capable adversary – a nation-state, for example.
What won’t a VPN do
A VPN is a simple and effective tool for protecting your online privacy, but the truth is that if someone specifically targets you and is willing to put in the effort, they are sure to get what they seek. A VPN can be defeated by malware on your device, or by analyzing traffic patterns to correlate activity on your computer with activity on the VPN server.
Even with a VPN, things like cookies allow companies to track your internet usage even after you leave their site. Fortunately, we have a handy guide to trimming cookies on your browser. We also recommend using a tracking blocker, such as EFF’s Privacy Badger, which can help keep advertisers blind to your movements. Many browsers, including Firefox, include privacy features that will improve your privacy – especially when it comes to overcoming browser fingerprinting.
VPNs also do a lot to anonymize your online activities. If you really want to surf the web anonymously, and access the Dark Web to boot, you’ll need to use Tor. Unlike a VPN, Tor bounces your traffic through multiple server nodes, making it more difficult to track. It is also managed by a non-profit organization and is distributed free of charge. Some VPN services will even connect to Tor via a VPN, making this mysterious system easier to access.
While VPNs are useful, they will not protect against every threat. We highly recommend using antivirus software, enabling two-factor authentication wherever available, and using a password manager to create unique and complex logins for each online account.
Do I need a VPN on all my devices?
Yes, you will need to install a VPN client on each device that you want to connect to the VPN. For the most part, VPN clients offer the same features across platforms but this is not the case Always the case.
For mobile devices, the situation is a little more difficult. Most companies offer VPN apps for Android and iPhone, which is great because we use these devices to connect to Wi-Fi all the time. VPNs don’t always work well with cellular connections, but it does take some serious effort to intercept mobile data. Law enforcement or intelligence agencies may have an easier time accessing this data or metadata, through communications with mobile carriers or using specialized equipment.
Are you using a less popular operating system? We provide a brief roundup of the best VPNs for Linux, as well as tips on how to set up a VPN on your Chromebook.
Note that you can skip the client applications altogether and connect to the VPN service simply using the Computer Network Control Panel. However, it comes with significant drawbacks. For one thing, it’s boring. On the other hand, client apps give you access to more features. Since you pay for the bells and whistles that VPN companies offer, you may also be able to use them. VPN apps will always be updated with the latest server information, which will save you a lot of trouble.
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Unfortunately, not all devices can run VPN apps. Your smart refrigerator, for example, is not a potential candidate for convenient use of the application. If this is a concern for you, you can configure your router to use a VPN connection, or purchase a preconfigured router from some VPN company. This encrypts the data as it leaves your secure home network for the wild web. The information sent within your network will be available, and any smart devices connected to your network will have a secure connection. We haven’t tested this type of setup, but we think it’s impractical for most people.
VPNs have practical drawbacks. Some sites and services view VPN traffic as suspicious and will not let you connect. This is a real problem, especially when it is your bank that is blocking you. In such situations, you can try a different VPN server, but you may have to wait to be able to use a reliable network without the VPN.
Chromecast and other streaming systems send data over your local network, but this is a problem when using a VPN. Same for printers, drives, or any other devices on your network. These devices look for data from phones and computers on the same network, not from a remote VPN server. Some VPNs have options to allow local network traffic, or you can try using a VPN on your router, but the simplest solution might be to turn off your VPN.
Do you like Netflix? That’s too bad because Netflix does it Not Like VPNs. The problem is that Netflix has a complex global network of regional licensing arrangements, and they don’t want you to use a VPN to access Netflix content that isn’t available in your country. However, some VPN services are working hard to ensure that their customers can still stream movies and TV shows. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and a VPN that works with Netflix today may not work tomorrow.
Likewise, some VPN companies prefer not to deal with the legal implications of using their services to download via BitTorrent. Torrenting, of course, is not illegal in nature, but it is being Often used to piracy of copyrighted material. Very few VPN companies completely ban BitTorrenting on their servers, while others restrict its use to certain servers.
The other main concern with VPNs is speed. In general, using a VPN will increase response time (or “ping”), and reduce the speed of data upload or download. It is very difficult to definitively determine which VPN will have the least impact on your browsing, but extensive testing can give you an idea of which service is the fastest VPN.
Although download speeds are one thing, gamers have particular concerns when it comes to internet connections. Although there are some VPNs for gaming, they are few and far between. But there are quite a few VPNs that offer split tunneling, which routes traffic from certain apps outside the VPN. It is less secure, but also has less impact on latency.
What VPN should I use?
Our collections of the best VPNs and the best cheap VPNs are excellent places to research the best options, but here’s a quick list of our top picks if you just want to get started on protecting your online privacy. Immediately.
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