What is a VPN?

VPN stands for a virtual private network. In basic terms, a VPN provides an encrypted server and hides your IP address from corporations, government agencies and would-be hackers. A VPN protects your identity even if you use public or shared Wi-Fi, and your data will be kept private from any prying internet eyes.

With servers located worldwide, users can “relocate” themselves and access the internet from nearly anywhere. A VPN circumvents your ISP instead of sending your internet connection to a hosted server. Encryption adds an extra layer of security, particularly for businesses that frequently utilise remote access. It can also be a helpful tool for travel, gaming and streaming.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

Now that you know what a VPN is, here’s a closer look at why you might need a VPN:

  • Security on Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi is convenient but comes at the expense of security. Someone may be tracking your online activity when you’re answering emails at a local coffee shop or absent-mindedly scrolling through social media at the airport.

Using a VPN protects your data while on other networks, hiding your browsing history, banking information, account passwords and more from ill-intentioned internet strangers.

  • Data Privacy From Your Internet Service Provider

While connected to your home Wi-Fi, strangers are less likely to attack you than on a public connection. However, your data is still vulnerable.

Your ISP or internet service provider—Comcast, Spectrum, Verizon or another company that you pay for Wi-Fi each month—can access all your internet data. Your ISP can see when, where and how you browse.

This data can be collected and sold to advertisers even if you’re using the “private” browsing function, and it can be dangerous in the wrong hands in the case of a data breach. A VPN can help obscure your IP address from your ISP.

  • Data Privacy From the Apps and Services You Use

Your ISP isn’t the only potential liability you’ve brought into your home. Unfortunately, many of our favourite apps and internet services—notably Facebook—have been called out for using their users’ data.

A VPN will prevent apps and websites from attributing your behaviour to your computer’s IP address. It can also limit the collection of your location and browser history.

  • Data Privacy From Your Government

While many ISPs, apps and internet data hubs suggest they don’t sell your browsing data to governments, the information nonetheless finds its way into their hands—even in the U.S.

Since 2013, when Edward Snowden first revealed that Verizon had been selling users’ internet and phone data to the NSA, Americans have become more aware of how the government surveils and collects their data. Following the Snowden leaks and subsequent outrage, several laws were enacted to curb government surveillance.

However, as recently as January of this year, the Defense Intelligence Agency bypassed a law demanding that government agencies produce warrants before compelling phone companies for their user data by paying third-party data brokers for that same data, according to the New York Times.

If you have qualms about governmental overreach, a VPN is a good investment in protecting your data.

  • Access to Any Content in Any Place

While Hulu may frown upon your use of a VPN to stream the latest Criminal Minds episode in a country where the content isn’t offered, this VPN usage is not illegal (in the U.S. and most countries), and it helps provide a helpful workaround to content restrictions.

VPNs spoof your location, making it seem like you are browsing from another place. That means you can get your Favorite show or movie even if unavailable locally.

  • Security When Working Remotely

One benefit of a VPN is its data encryption features. Encryption, or putting data into a coded format so its meaning is obscured, allows you to keep confidential information safe.

Suppose you are considering investing in a VPN for your company. In that case, one benefit is that workers can connect to your office network and look at sensitive materials on their own devices while away from the office. As remote work seems possible even after the pandemic ends, a VPN is a worthwhile investment to keep confidential material safe off-site.

  • Adaptable to Numerous Smart Devices

While many of us may first try a VPN on a company-loaned laptop, many VPN services protect other smart devices such as your phones, tablets and desktop computers. Each VPN company may offer slightly different protection plans and have various capacities to protect different devices, but many providers offer plans that help keep you safe on multiple devices.

  • Smart Savings

If you are willing to put in a little research, a VPN can help you save money via its location spoofing capabilities. Many businesses, such as subscription services and airlines, offer the same amenities or products for different prices. If you change the appearance of your location to a place where services are offered cheaper, you can end up with big savings.

Limitations of VPNs

While a VPN is a great tool to help separate your location (and, in many ways, you) from your data, it doesn’t obscure everything about you. If you take a Facebook quiz or like a post on Instagram, the app you are using while connected to the VPN can still use your behaviour to tailor in-app ads and content. They might not know where you are browsing from, but they will still see what you do on their apps.

Similarly, if cookies are enabled on your computer, companies can follow you while you are on their site—and after. Your entire data isn’t obscured with a VPN alone. Combining a VPN’s protection with Tor, an open-source tool that allows you to browse the web anonymously, and other security measures is necessary for fuller security.

VPNs aren’t perfect tools. Like any computer program, they are susceptible to malware and online attacks. If infected, a VPN’s security benefits are nullified.

The likelihood of attacks and security breaches is increased by using a free VPN service. To recoup their business costs, “free” VPN services may sell user data or run ads that could be infected with malware. If you aim to increase your data privacy, investing in a paid VPN is your best bet.

Featured Recommended VPN Providers in No Specific Order. 

(Credit: Forbes.com)

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