What is a VPN and why do I need one?

Protect your privacy, unblock streaming locks and hide from hackers with a VPN

What is a VPN
(Image credit: Getty Images)

VPNs are often described as the solution to all kinds of tech issues, from protecting your privacy to unblocking streaming services. But many of us are unclear about what a VPN actually does, and why we might want to use one. Hurrah, then, for Harold Li. He’s the VP of what we consider to be the best VPN service, ExpressVPN, and we asked him to answer the questions we know you want the answers to.

What is a VPN?

“VPNs are critical tools for protecting our digital privacy and security,” Li says. “They increase your anonymity online, shield your internet activity from being monitored by ISPs and governments, and they defend your data from hackers on shared networks such as public Wi-Fi hotspots.”

They do this by creating a secure tunnel between you and the site or service you’re using. This tunnel uses encryption to ensure that nobody else can see your data. And because VPNs usually route your traffic through servers that aren’t anywhere near you, they can also disguise your geographic location. As Li points out, that can be important: “In places where internet access is censored or otherwise controlled, VPNs help protect your rights online by enabling access to blocked sites and services.”

OK, but I’m not a freedom fighter or a spy. Why do I need a VPN?

Have you ever connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot in an airport, or a cafe, or a hotel? They’re not always particularly safe or secure. “It can be very easy for a hacker on the same network to view or even interfere with your internet traffic if it’s not properly encrypted,” Li explains.

We’ve even seen villains create their own convincing-looking hotspots that’ll intercept the traffic of anybody who connects to them. Whether it’s a compromised hotspot or a fraudulent one, “VPNs protect you against those hackers by encrypting all your traffic.”

And you don’t need to be a spy to worry about privacy or hiding your location. VPNs can help prevent tracking by advertisers and other potential privacy invaders, and they can magically unlock sites that aren’t available to you when you’re travelling, such as streaming music or movie services you subscribe to.

Can I just use a free VPN?

Of course you can. But there are sound reasons to consider a paid-for service instead. We’ve all encountered free products that simply don’t do the job, that do the job terribly or that try to sneak things onto our computers. If you’re not paying for the product, it may not be worth paying for.

“We know first hand from our ten-plus years in the industry that maintaining the resources and tech infrastructure required to run a secure, reliable VPN is not cheap,” Li says.

“So free services or cut-price services are likely cutting corners or making money in other ways. We’ve seen free services with poor privacy standards, services injecting additional adverts into the websites you visit, and even one case where it was converting its users’ computers into a botnet!”

Li’s advice? You get what you pay for. “If you care about privacy or security at all, don’t skimp on your VPN.”

How do I choose a VPN?

Naturally, Li recommends ExpressVPN: “It provides the best user experience, including blazing fast connections globally, support for a wide range of operating systems and devices, and 24/7 live chat – customer service that responds in seconds, not days,” he says.

But no matter which service you’re thinking about, there are some key things to consider. Does it support all of the different devices you use to get online with? Does it have enough servers to deliver the performance you want? Does it deliver the uptime you need to be sure that it’s always there when you need it?

And it’s also worth looking at the service’s privacy policies and what specific things it does to protect your privacy. For example, ExpressVPN uses what it calls TrustedServer technology: the servers run everything in RAM, so nothing’s stored on hard drives, and the entire software stack is reinstalled on every reboot to make sure every single server is running the latest, most secure code. You can find out more about it here

VPNs are a sensible solution to some very common problems. Whether you want to keep your online banking safe, protect your online privacy or just stream that movie when you’re in Majorca, they can make the internet a much better place.

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Lead image credit: Getty