A virtual private network (VPN) provides an extra layer of privacy, enables you to access foreign websites, and can even provide secure connections for transferring sensitive business information. While they are typically used by individuals, VPNs also offer businesses the ability to manage multiple user accounts, block certain types of content and keep your data safe from prying eyes.
What is a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) is a service that gives you more security when you connect to the internet, regardless of whether you’re at home, work or on public Wi-Fi. A VPN masks your IP address when you use the internet, which keeps your activity online private and your identity safe.
Think of a VPN as a covered bridge or tunnel for your data. It blocks your IP address, your identity and any data you send or receive online from prying eyes. Using a VPN makes you virtually untraceable because your IP is masked, so no one can pinpoint you.
What Does a VPN Do?
A VPN app encrypts your data when you go online. It sends that shielded data to your ISP to make the connection and get you online. The VPN then deciphers your data, so it’s usable wherever you’re sending it.
Think of it as a decoder ring. You write a message in code (encryption by VPN) and send the message to someone (a website) with the decoder ring (decryption by VPN). If someone happens to intercept that message (say, your login info for your checking account), it would only look like gibberish to them because they can’t crack the code.
The same goes for data sent back to you—the VPN encrypts it before it sends.
Without a VPN, when you connect to the internet, your device sends a request to your ISP or a Wi-Fi network. The data that transfers between you and your destination is not encrypted. This leaves you vulnerable to anyone who wants to view your online activity. And your IP could be traced, which could expose your identity.
How To Choose the Best VPN for You
Choosing the best VPN comes down to what you want to get out of a VPN. You should consider locations, cost, speed and security protocols. You may also want to choose a VPN service based on whether it will maintain a connection as your internet changes—from Wi-Fi to cellular, for example.
How Much Does a VPN Cost?
As you can see in the chart above, VPN pricing ranges from free to about $13 per month. Free VPNs usually limit you in the number of devices you can connect and locations. The cheapest VPNs generally give you deep discounts for agreeing to pay for a VPN for multiple years in advance. The higher prices are typically reserved for business VPNs, which usually have several devices connected simultaneously (justifying the premium cost).
How To Use a VPN
The majority of today’s VPNs are exceptionally easy to use. Once you’ve created an account with the provider, all you need to do is download the VPN app on your computer or smartphone. Once you’ve signed in with your account, you typically choose from a list of remote servers located around the world. Click on the one you’d like, and the system should automatically connect you. Once you get confirmation that you’re connected, you can use your device as you normally would without your VPN. You can disconnect or change your server from your app’s home screen.
How VPNs Protect Your Privacy (and How They Don’t)
You can safely use a VPN on your personal and business devices, and it’s a great way to keep your personal data and browsing habits private. The scrambled data is nearly impossible to decipher, so it’s useless to hackers and sites that want to track that data.
However, VPNs can’t protect against everything you do on your computer, laptop or mobile phone.
A VPN can protect:
- Your identity online
- Data you send and receive online
What a VPN doesn’t protect you from:
- Phishing scams
- Data on your devices
A VPN protects active transmissions of data online, so it cannot do much for the data that lives on your phone or computer. For physical data protection, you would need antivirus and anti-malware software. It’s also important to be careful which links you click in email and online. Phishing attacks can be cleverly disguised as emails from someone you know.
5 Reasons Why You Need a VPN
Using a VPN at home can keep your data safe from those who want to use your data for targeted advertising. On your mobile device, a VPN can protect your login details and other data you send when you connect to public Wi-Fi. And it can be especially useful for businesses that have proprietary information to protect. Here are some of the most common VPN uses:
1. Keep Your Data Private From Your ISP
Because of the relationship between you and your ISP, it can track what you do online (such as what sites you visit, the time you spend browsing, etc.). Depending on the Terms of Service and what you’ve agreed to, your ISP may even sell your personal data to advertisers. With that said, your stored data is kept confidential otherwise, according to most internet providers.
In the United States, ISPs are required to keep browsing history logs for 90 days. If the government requests your internet history, an ISP must comply. In fact, in cases of national security, the government doesn’t even need a warrant to access your internet data. Theoretically, with a warrant, local law enforcement can use your data to help convict you of a crime.
Even if you’re a law-abiding citizen, you might not want your ISP documenting every URL you visit. If you use a VPN, you can cover your tracks. At the very least, it can give you peace of mind.
2. Use Public Wi-Fi Safely With a VPN
Whether you’re at an airport waiting for a flight and checking your email, or at a local restaurant reading news on your phone, you may be tempted to use public Wi-Fi. It seems safe enough, right? The free internet connection is offered by the airport or business and they mean well.
The good news is that browsing online has become safer in recent years, thanks to most people adopting HTTPS over HTTP. That “S” is a security protocol that comes from a secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate, and it helps protect internet data that’s shared to and from a site. That’s what makes it safer for you to pay for products and services online, for example.
However, most public Wi-Fi connections are open and not password protected, so you might put yourself at risk of your connection being intercepted by a hacker who is trolling the Wi-Fi network.
If you have a VPN service to log into first, you can anonymously connect to public Wi-Fi and essentially remain hidden on the network. A VPN will hide your identity on an open internet connection and encrypt active data, so even if a cybercriminal is on the same network, you’ll be safe.
3. Protect Your Personal Data From Businesses
Lots of retailers offer apps and free Wi-Fi to shoppers, and they make it really hard to not use them. For one, if you download a retailer’s app, you may get access to exclusive coupons and deals, so that’s tempting. Also, a lot of physical locations block cell phone service simply because of the metal in structures.
Businesses that offer these perks for free or incentives to use their apps and Wi-Fi are doing so to collect your data, which is extremely valuable to them. This is another good reason to use a VPN if you want to protect your personal data. Plus, you’ll still be able to safely access your apps and use free Wi-Fi while you’re shopping at malls or stores.
4. Protect Proprietary Info
Many companies adopted a remote or hybrid work policy recently, which is convenient for a lot of employees. However, there is a security concern about having remote workers log into company servers from home because you don’t know how secure an employee’s connection is. They could be working from home or a coffee shop. And if a connection is intercepted, there’s a concern that active data could go from an employee to a hacker, rather than the Wi-Fi the employee is trying to use.
Providing all employees with remote access and a VPN will help keep your company’s files and projects safe.
5. Access Blocked Content
A VPN does more than protect your data—it can unlock your access to media you can’t get to now. There are benefits here for a few different reasons.
Some citizens in countries with strict governments may not be able to visit websites with opposing views to their politicians. A VPN can make it appear as though you’re located in a different location, so you can access otherwise blocked websites or media. And your connection to the VPN can keep your actual location and IP cloaked, so you can’t be pinpointed.
Another benefit to using a VPN is that you can use it to find media you can’t get otherwise. For example, Netflix and Hulu offer different types of programming per location. If you’re in the United States, you might not be able to watch what’s available on Netflix in the United Kingdom. A VPN can make it appear as though you’re in another country, thereby unlocking that exclusive content.
These are just a few examples of how a VPN can help protect you or help you access blocked information. There are plenty of other reasons why everyone should use a VPN.