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Recent regulation changes to how Internet Service Providers can use your browsing history have kickstarted another wave of interest in a piece of software called a Virtual Private Network or VPN—but what is a VPN, and why might you want to install one?
Here we’ll set out the ins and outs of VPN software, explain what they protect you against and what they don’t, and how you can go about finding one that’s right for you. For anyone who spends any time on the web, it’s important knowledge to have.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO USE A VPN
The basics of what a VPN is is right there in the name: private network. Instead of connecting directly to the internet at large, you connect to your VPN through your ISP, and and then your VPN connects to the rest of the web.
VPNs are often used to let remote workers get into their company’s private office network even when they’re not physically in the office, and they work the same for the average consume. They let you appear as if you’re somewhere you’re not, and add a few extra layers of security along the way.
You get two main benefits from using a VPN. First, is that by using a server hosted by your VPN, you can pretend to be in a different country—this is often used to access content from different regions, although the likes of Netflix are now cracking down on the practice.
YOUR VPN PROVIDER ENCRYPTS ALL THE TRAFFIC GOING TO AND FROM YOUR COMPUTER
Second, and perhaps more importantly, your VPN provider encrypts all the traffic going to and from your computer, so it’s much more difficult for someone else to tap into your communications or see your browsing history. That someone could be a casual hacker in the same coffee shop as you or a government agency keen to take a peek at your online activity, or even your ISP, which might be interested in recording and selling your browsing history.
You don’t need a VPN to get online, but those are the key reasons to consider it.
HOW A VPN DOES AND DOESN’T PROTECT YOU
VPN software sits on your computer (or phone) and makes a secure, encrypted, trusted link to the VPN company’s servers. Then, it fetches whatever you want from the web.
While that does is make it very hard for someone to tap into the communications between you and the VPN server, the VPN company itself can keep logs of your activity the same way your ISP could were you not using a VPN. Most promise not to—privacy, after all, is ostensibly the reason they exist in the first place—but carefully check the small print for details.
VPNS DON’T NECESSARILY MAKE YOU ANONYMOUS ON THE INTERNET
It’s important to note that VPNs don’t necessarily make you anonymous on the internet, although some VPNs do claim to. Facebook and Google will of course know whenever you sign in, no matter which VPN server you’re connecting from, and websites can still leave cookies on your machine to log your visits from one particular browser. Also, anyone who has direct access to any of your devices will always be able to see what you are doing unless you are decrypting your data by hand, one byte at a time.
Plus, with the right legal authority, some law enforcement agencies may be able to monitor your devices directly, or force your VPN service to give up records of your actions if you, your VPN, and the law enforcement agency in question all share a jurisdiction, even if those records are just the times you went online. What can be found out about you can vary significantly depending on the law in your part of the world (or where the VPN is based), the services you’ve been accessing, and the policies of the VPN company you’ve signed up with, but you should think of a VPN as adding extra privacy and security rather than guaranteeing complete anonymity.
VPNs can also slow down your download and upload speeds, because you’re adding a middle stage to your connection to the internet. Some VPNs have faster servers than others, adding yet another consideration to think about when picking a one to sign up with. And that brings us to the biggest, thorniest issue.
CHOOSING A VPN
There’s no getting around it: Picking a VPN is difficult. You’re placing your trust in a VPN provider to be more upstanding about security and user privacy than your ISP is, and there’s little in the way of regulation or control when it comes to who can set up a Virtual Private Network and rent it out to punters.
In theory, VPNs should have your best interests at heart, as they only survive by offering privacy to their users. In reality, however, things are more complicated. Some VPNs can have troubling fine print, less than ideal business practices, or roots in countries with laws that don’t favor privacy. Worse yet, some VPNs can simply be scams designed to collect data for the express purpose of selling it.
A GOOD VPN COSTS MONEY, FULL STOP
That said, there are good VPN services out there, and you can find them with a little detective work. Put together a shortlist based on reputable reviews in the tech press, user feedback, and how long these VPNs have been around. Perhaps most importantly, a good VPN costs money, full stop. Any service that operates “for free” needs to be monetizing somewhere, and it’s probably through the sale of your data.
If you know any tech-savvy, security-conscious web users, get advice from them too. Independent reviews online, like the one put together by That One Privacy Site, can be helpful too, though watch out for reviews and round-ups with affiliate links that may have been paid for by the VPNs themselves. Ultimately, only you can choose what VPN is best for your needs, just don’t make that decision lightly.
SETTING UP AND USING A VPN
The good news is that setting up a Virtual Private Network is a lot more straightforward than deciding who to sign up with, and a lot of VPN companies actually put ease-of-use as one of their biggest selling points.
With pretty much any VPN you pick, you’ll typically get client software to install on your computers and mobile devices, which you then log into. All of the heavy encryption and security protection is taken care of for you, so in a couple of clicks you can be online and surfing the web as normal.
Most VPNs give you a choice of servers to connect to, usually in different parts of the world, so you can choose where on the globe you want to appear. Choose one in France, for instance, and all the websites that you visit will think that you’re sat at a computer somewhere in France.
Keep an eye on your VPN client for details like download speeds and connection status (don’t connect to any sensitive sites before the connection is established). Some tools will automatically recommend a server for you, based on how busy it is and how many other users are hooked up to it.
Even after you’re up and running, keep an eye on the other services out there, and of course the ever-changing privacy law landscape, if you want to stay as safe as possible. Remember that staying protected online is about more than just using a VPN too, and there are other measures you need to know about.