We read the news today, oh boy: once again privacy – or rather, our lack of it – is front page news. This week it’s Facebook, next week it’ll no doubt be some other big name. But we’re not powerless: just because all kinds of people want to track us online doesn’t mean we need to let them. All you need to deter snoopers is a really big stick, and by stick we mean “VPN”.
VPN is short for Virtual Private Network. A VPN service creates a secure, private connection between you and the site or service you’re communicating with. Think of it as a tunnel that only you can access: your data travels through the tunnel, protected from prying eyes.
As you can see from our best VPN roundup you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get reliable, secure and affordable VPN software. And there are multiple important benefits to using a VPN service. These are the 5 advantages of using a VPN to protect your privacy online.
1. They deliver properly private browsing
Don’t be fooled by private browsing modes in your web browser. That stops your browsing activity from being stored on your computer or other device, but it doesn’t stop websites or your ISP from logging what you do. You need a VPN for that.
VPNs disguise your IP address, the unique number of each internet connection, which means sites can’t work out exactly where you are or track your IP address.
That’s not just useful for logging. It’s an effective way to beat the ad tracking that infests so much of the internet. If you’ve ever used an extension such as Ghostery to see what trackers are being used on big-name websites you’ll know that there’s an astonishing amount of spying going on. Using a VPN prevents such ad trackers and other snooping tools from tracking you around the internet and building an ever more detailed picture of your online activity.
Think of it as privacy, not anonymity: using a VPN is rather like closing the curtains so people from the street can’t see look through your windows: they might know where you live, but they can’t see what you’re watching on Netflix.
2. They keep business data safe from snooping
You don’t need to be a freedom fighter to benefit from VPN software and VPN security. You might work in a field where competitors are awfully keen to know what you’re going to do next. It’s worryingly easy to intercept unencrypted internet traffic, but the best encrypted VPN connections are practically impossible to crack. If you’re worried about industrial espionage or fear the consequences of your world domination plans being leaked, VPN apps can keep your secrets secret.
3. They defeat geo-blocking and censorship
Geo-blocking is when a site determines your location and refuses to show you something. That might be a video site that only has the rights to a movie in specific countries, or it might be a site that’s been blocked by government censorship: the internet we take for granted is much freer than the internet in many parts of the world. A VPN connection can appear to be from anywhere in the world, so for example if you want to access a site that geoblocks anyone outside the US your VPN can persuade the site that you’re in the US irrespective of where you actually are.
4. They make public Wi-Fi less like the Wild West
Public Wi-Fi is dangerous. There are several reasons for that. One, it’s incredibly easy to set up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot that looks legitimate; two, it’s incredibly easy to compromise devices connected to the same Wi-Fi hotspot as you; and three, a router plugged into the wall by a harassed barista probably won’t use the same levels of security as a corporate Wi-Fi access point. Taken together, that means doing anything remotely sensitive from online banking to plotting the overthrow of a repressive regime is a really bad idea on public Wi-Fi unless you use a VPN.
Once again VPNs provide a secure, encrypted connection between you and the site or service you’re using, and it’s exceptionally difficult to intercept your data when it’s protected in that way.
5. They can thwart network throttling
One of the happy benefits of VPNs is that they prevent ISPs from knowing exactly what kind of data you’re using or where it’s coming from – and that means you can evade network throttling that prioritizes some kinds of traffic over others. For example, if your ISP throttles video data or content from specific sites, running a VPN enables you to bypass those restrictions. This isn’t something you need to worry about in countries with solid net neutrality laws, where all traffic must be treated equally, but sadly plenty of countries do enable ISPs to throttle whatever they want – including the US, whose FCC tore up its net neutrality rules in December 2017.
What VPNs don’t do
We think VPNs are great, but there are some important things to remember. The first is that VPNs generally provide effective privacy, not total anonymity: claims of anonymous, log-free web browsing are usually subject to an awful lot of small print. Many VPN providers log at least some information about their customers including their real IP address and other data. That kind of stored information can and has been subpoenaed by law enforcement, so don’t assume you can go and hack the Pentagon without black helicopters hovering over your home.
And the second is that you have to do your bit too. There’s no point creating a secure tunnel between you and the wider internet if you use it to fill out personality quizzes on Facebook or to post personally identifiable information. VPNs are a fantastic privacy tool, but security is only as good as the weakest link in the chain.