What is a virtual private network (VPN)?
A VPN is a secure connection between your computer and a server. Normally, when you connect to the internet, you first connect to your internet service provider (ISP), which then connects you to whatever websites you visit. When you use a VPN, you connect to a server run by your VPN provider, which directs your traffic instead.
Essentially, your VPN serves as an anonymous middleman that does your browsing for you, so providers can’t track the sites you’re visiting. This means your ISP can’t see what you’re doing on the internet. It also means you appear to access the internet from the IP address of your VPN server (rather than your own IP address), so any website monitoring your activity won’t know where you’re browsing from.
Why do I need to use a VPN?
Even if you don’t think you’re being tracked online, you are.
Your internet service provider (ISP) can see everything you do. While there probably isn’t a guy from your ISP sitting in a corner office watching your every move, many ISPs do compile anonymous browsing logs and sometimes sell them to advertising companies. With that data, advertisers can tailor their content directly to certain regions or browsing habits.
Reasons to use a VPN
1. When you’re on public Wi-Fi
When you’re using a public Wi-Fi network, even one that’s password-protected, a VPN is your best friend. If a hacker is on the same Wi-Fi network, it’s actually quite easy for them to snoop on your data. The basic security that your average coffee shop uses, a WPA2 password, doesn’t actually protect you from others on the network in a robust way.
Using a VPN will add an extra layer of security to your data, ensuring you bypass the coffee shop’s ISP and encrypting all your communication. Hackers will need to find easier prey.
2. When you’re travelling
If you’re travelling to a foreign country (say, China, where sites like Facebook are blocked), a VPN can help you access services that may not be available in that country.
Often, the VPN will allow you to use streaming services that you paid for and have access to in your home country, but for international rights issues aren’t available in another. Using a VPN can make it seem like you’re enjoying the service just like you were at home. Travellers may also be able to find cheaper airfare when using a VPN, as prices can vary from region to region.
3. When you’re a remote worker or student
Many employers require the use of a VPN to access company services remotely, for security reasons. A VPN that connects to your office’s server can give you access to internal company networks and resources when you’re not in the office. It can do the same for your home network while you’re out and about.
4. When you’re a political dissident
Some countries don’t have the same protections for press freedom, speech, and expression that many Western countries have, and a few regimes even take draconian measures to monitor and take action against those they see as threats to the regime.
It should almost go without saying that for political dissidents, using a VPN (among other privacy tools) is essential for internet use within an oppressive regime. They’re not a catch-all solution, though, and governments are beginning to crack down on their use.
5. When you just want some privacy
Even in the comfort of your own home, doing your regular internet thing, using a VPN isn’t a terrible idea. Generally, it will keep you from leaving footprints on the web for your ISP to scoop up.
However, when choosing a VPN for day-to-day browsing, it pays to do your research.