As the Internet grows in popularity and the number of users increases every year, your privacy and safety while browsing online becomes increasingly important. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are becoming one of the most popular tools to assist with this. At its most simple, a VPN is used to make it appear that you're browsing from anywhere in the world. This is done by replacing the IP address that shows when you're browsing online which, when not changed, can be easily used to locate where you're browsing from and what you're looking at. Using a VPN will allow you to:
1. Encrypt your IP address, making it impossible for people, including your Internet service provider, 3rd party agencies, and any network admins to read or trace.
2. Make your browser more secure from those that may try to hack you through public WiFi networks.
3. Access websites that may be blocked by the country you're browsing from.
This is quickly becoming one of the most popular uses for a VPN. If you live in a country with restricted Internet viewing, a VPN can make it seem that you're browsing from a different country and makes it possible for you to look at otherwise blocked content. This enables you to have free access to information without being restricted, empowering people with freedom of press.
What's a VPN?
To get into a little more detail, a VPN can be split into several core components:
A VPN client: This is the piece of software you can download and use to access a VPN service through your computer or device. This is also called a VPN app.
VPN protocol: This is the process of your computer or device that has your VPN client installed, connecting to a VPN server to access its benefits.
VPN server: This is what the VPN client connects to, so that you can change your IP and have a secure and unrestricted browsing experience.
VPN service: Finally, the VPN service is the company or provider of the VPN that you can access. This company will provide you with the software and instructions to access their VPN server. This might also be called a VPN provider, similar to your Internet service provider, for example.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN uses the steps above to encrypt your Internet browsing experience. A VPN essentially adds an extra step when you're browsing online that happens instantly and in the background, so that you'd never notice. Rather than using the IP of your local server, you instead connect to the VPN server, which could be located in any country. When you then browse the Internet, you can make it look like you're browsing from the USA based on your server address when you're actually located in the UK. This makes your location anonymous, which makes it impossible for websites to collect personal information about you or to identify where you are.
If you don't use a VPN, everything you do online can be traced back to your exact location, as well as the device you're using. This is an apparent invasion of privacy and can also be used for highly direct marketing and to create a profile on who you are and what you're looking at.
VPNs also unblock content around the world. A simple and popular use for this is to watch videos on streaming services that are blocked in different countries. If you're in the UK, you may find that the content on a streaming service is limited compared to those in the USA, even though you pay the same amount each month for access, for example. China is notorious for strict walls around what information people can view to restrict the type of content or press they can see. This can be viewed as a restriction in the freedom to consume information from different points of view, and a VPN breaks down these walls and allows you to view content from different countries and perspectives.
Why should I use a VPN?
There are several main reasons that people choose to use a VPN service:
1. To protect your location and browse online anonymously
2. Encrypt your IP to stop 3rd parties like your ISP or the government from being able to see what you're viewing online.
3. Remove restrictions on what websites you can view online put in place by the country you're browsing from, or that's exclusive to a specific country.
4. Make it possible to stream, download, or torrent media.
5. Save money by changing your location when buying flights.
6. Add a layer of protection from people that try to hack others through public WiFi networks.
7. Protect personal information, including your address, passwords, photos, and card details when browsing online.
Are VPNs safe to use?
Most VPN service providers are generally safe to use, but take some time to browse the options available and read their reviews to ensure you're using a well-known and tested VPN service. There are plenty of good cheap vpn services as long as you do some research. The main VPN services to avoid are the ones that are entirely free to use. These are generally not maintained well and can have issues that might cause a threat to your privacy. One study found that over 80% of free VPN apps you can download on Android devices were found to leak data.
Are VPNs legal?
Across the west and in the developed world, VPNs are completely legal to use, and some huge companies use them every day to protect their own data. If you have a personal VPN, though, use it with care if you travel to places like the Middle East, as some countries dislike the use of VPNs that enable you to bypass the restrictions they have put in place online.