What Is a VPN? How Virtual Private Networks Protect You Online

What Is a VPN? How Virtual Private Networks Protect You Online
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What Is a VPN? How Virtual Private Networks Protect You Online

S.E. Slack
November 25, 2019

Protecting yourself from prying eyes isn’t easy in today’s digital world. Virtual private networks (VPNs), however, can help you create an extra level of security by protecting your online identity through encrypted, private internet connections.

What is a VPN and why do I need it?

A VPN is a technology that encrypts, or secures the connections between your computer and the internet. By masking your identity, a VPN lets you hide your online activities, prevent hackers from eavesdropping or stealing your login details when you use public Wi-Fi or even make it appear you are in another city or country.

Globally, about 26% of online users access the internet with a VPN. In North America, less than 20% of internet users have a VPN service. That could be related to the fact that most people don’t understand the depth and breadth of the security issues they face online. For example, according to Pew Research about two thirds of internet users do not realize that internet service providers (ISPs) can still see the sites their customers are visiting even when in a browser’s private browsing mode.

There are three primary reasons why people use VPNs, according to Chris Parker, founder, WhatIsMyIPAddress.com: Security, privacy and access.

“In terms of security, people want to be sure others can’t see what they’re doing or access their information while they’re using a public Wi-Fi spot,” Parker said. “For privacy reasons, people don’t want their internet service provider, advertisers or the government knowing where they go online or what they do. Travelers like VPNs, too, because some countries will restrict access to the internet or censor websites people can visit. A VPN helps circumvent all of these problems pretty easily in most cases.”

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Of VPN users worldwide, the majority turn to VPNs to access better entertainment. That’s because some countries restrict access to certain shows or censor the sites people can visit through a technology known as “geoblocking.” Some entertainment streaming services, such as Netflix, are not accessible in certain countries. Through a VPN, users may be able to bypass geoblocking.

“There are a number of ISPs that sell customer surfing habits,” explained Parker. “But if your internet traffic is routed through a VPN, the ISP can’t see what you are specifically doing. And that’s okay. An ISP’s job is to give access, not sell your information.”

Related: Identity theft check: Uncover if your data may have been compromised

How to choose a VPN service

Whatever reasons you may have in subscribing to a VPN service, choose a VPN provider carefully and look for the types of services you need. Read multiple reviews of different services and look at the reputation of the site supplying the review, too, since some are paid to recommend services. Free VPN services sound good, for instance, but could limit your access or inject ads into the service. Avoid lifetime VPN offers, says Parker, because some companies may operate on shaky foundations and might not truly be around for your lifetime.

“Think about the reasons you want a VPN and buy one that will work for your specific needs,” said Parker. “For instance, if you want to look like you’re accessing the internet from a certain country and the VPN service doesn’t have servers there, that should be a non-starter. Look at things like bandwidth and data limitations, too, if you’re planning to use it for entertainment purposes.”

Read more: Best VPN services for 2020

Additional considerations include looking for services that offer lots of servers, especially in your country, 24/7 customer support, and shared IP addresses. Most people also seek VPNs that do not keep data logs (a way to track your internet movements) to further protect their privacy. When you decide upon a VPN, take advantage of any trial period offered and look for services that have refund policies.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN service acts as a tunnel to the internet that lets your activities safely and privately flow through it. VPNs work in two ways to give you that encrypted connection to the internet. They first insulate your data from other internet traffic and then they scramble the data you send through it so anyone except the intended receiver can’t see it.

A variety of VPN encryption protocols exist today including IKEv2, IPSec, L2TP, OpenVPN, PPTP, and SSTP. OpenVPN, an open source protocol supported by Android, iOs, Linux, Mac, and Windows and other lesser-known operating systems, is very popular and the protocol to which all others are compared. Some VPN services offer only one type of protocol; others offer multiple types. A few VPNs also offer additional layers of protection, such as DNS resolution.

You can use VPNs on desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Routers sometimes include VPN software, too. To use a VPN, you simply log into the service that you have selected and once connected, begin browsing.

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How else can I protect myself online?

While VPNs are a great way to stay safe online, it’s important to practice safe web surfing at all times by remembering these tips:

  1. Never click links in unsolicited texts or emails. You can search an email address to try to learn more and better evaluate suspicious communications.
  2. Take an extra security step when you log on to websites. Two-factor authentication (2FA) offers that added layer of protection by requiring you to include a specific code in your login process for a website or online service along with your username and password.
  3. Use well-known websites. Never use a website you’ve been redirected to without a clear understanding of why you’re being redirected.
  4. Keep your antivirus software updated. Regular updates protect you from new viruses that pop up daily. (Related: How to remove malware).
  5. Don’t click on pop-up ads. Too often, these pop-up windows from adware contain viruses, particularly when there are suddenly several of them at once or more springing up as soon as you close them.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.