Virtual private networks (VPNs) have experienced a surge of interest since Congress voted to allow ISPs to sell your browsing history. It’s not always clear exactly why you should be using one though. Sure, it can help you unblock geo-restricted content on streaming sites like Netflix. However, a VPN can dramatically improve your security and privacy by routing your traffic out of the reach of eavesdropping governments, ISPs, and malicious hackers.
While using a VPN at home is a good idea, it is even more important when on-the-go. Public Wi-Fi networks have a number of security issues, and you can’t trust your network provider. The terminology around VPNs can seem like a hurdle, but it’s worth getting your head around. Choosing to never venture online without a VPN may be the best security decision you’ll ever make.
1. Improve Your Security
An episode of the hit TV show Silicon Valley had the team at Pied Piper monitoring public Wi-Fi traffic using a device called a Wi-Fi Pineapple. These easy-to-use devices may seem like a work of fiction, but they are indeed real. It requires very little technical knowledge for an attacker to eavesdrop everything you do online with a Wi-Fi Pineapple. Sadly, those devices are far from the only way that public Wi-Fi networks can be compromised.
The promise of a fast and reliable Wi-Fi network can be almost irresistible, but just one rogue connection could cause you a lot of pain. Instead of passing up the opportunity to connect, simply add a VPN into the mix. The encryption that comes as standard with many VPNs means that no matter who is snooping on the connection won’t be able to see your data. Your browsing history, online transactions, and email will be hidden by the power of cryptography.
2. Defeat Censorship and Bypass Restrictions
Public Wi-Fi networks are often provided free of charge. In return for their service, you agree to their Terms & Conditions, which may limit what you can access on their network. As the provider can’t determine what content you access through the VPN, you can effectively bypass their restrictions. The same is also true of government censorship. China has become infamous for its Great Firewall that blocks a number of websites like Facebook. All you need to do to evade this censorship is activate your VPN and choose a server in a less restrictive country.
Unfortunately, countries like China and Russia have begun to clamp down on VPNs in an effort to continue surveillance and maintain their censorship of the internet. This worrying development at least shows that oppressive governments are nervous about the protection that VPNs offer against digital oppression. With the Net Neutrality debate still raging on, you can get ahead of the game and use a VPN. As your ISP won’t be able to identify your connection, it can’t be prioritized or demoted. If you do come across any connection issues, you can simply change your VPN’s server to a different location.
3. Stop Tracking Dead in Its Tracks
I’m going to go ahead and say that Sting called it all the way back in 1983. In the Police’s chart-topping hit single, Sting sang “every single day, every word you say, every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you” — correctly predicting the rise of online tracking. Ad networks the world over, including the likes of Google and Facebook, all track you across the internet, building a profile of you that can be sold to advertisers.
Facebook Becoming The 'Big Brother' Of Social Media. Tracking ALL Actions Of It's Users. Kind Of Creepy To Me. I Just Tweet. To Each His Own
— Robert Craig (@RC5251) July 27, 2017
VPNs encrypt the data that you send from your computer to their servers. The encryption scrambles the information making it impossible for a third party to intercept. This means that your search terms and browsing history are hidden out of sight. Not even the website itself will be able to identify you, as the traffic will appear to be from the VPN’s IP address. Of course, if you are signed into your Google or Facebook account then they will still be able to store your movements. You can minimize this risk by using the anonymous search engine DuckDuckGo or privacy-focused browsers like Epic or Firefox Focus.
4. Steer Clear of Surveillance
If only it were advertisers and social networks that wanted to pry into our online lives. Unfortunately, the Edward Snowden leaks of 2013 showed that we can’t even trust our own government not to spy on us. The documents revealed that the NSA had been performing mass surveillance on almost all American citizens — tracking their online activity, phone calls, and messages.
Your VPN’s encryption is the first line of defense against this surveillance by turning your data into garbled nonsense. However, there is a potential flaw here: your VPN provider can decrypt it. As the data is not end-to-end encrypted, governments can demand that providers hand over unencrypted user data. This is why it’s important to choose a VPN provider that is entirely logless, and takes a firm stance on privacy. If you are concerned about routing your traffic through certain countries, then you can change your VPN server to a country of your choosing.
When Will You VPN?
A VPN is one of the easiest ways to improve your online security. Create an account, download, connect and your VPN will do most of the heavy lifting. Then you can browse the internet, sending data back and forth with impunity, knowing that you are protected. As with any market, there are unfortunately those who have an incentive to mislead you. Free VPNs often can’t be trusted to properly secure your data, with some even selling it on for profit.
While it’s generally considered more secure to choose a premium VPN, it doesn’t guarantee security. A report from RestorePrivacy showed that some providers are faking server locations in an effort to minimize costs. Fortunately there are some tell-tale signs that you can actually trust a VPN provider. Despite these risks, if you find a trustworthy VPN then you can reap the benefits of a secure connection.
Just remember: don’t expect too much from a VPN.
Do you use a VPN? If so, which? Are you concerned about the points raised here? Do you believe you should always be using a VPN? Let us know the comments.
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