For the vast majority of people, using the internet has become a normal part of their daily routine. In one way or another, most people use the internet for quite innocent, completely harmless purposes, such as students doing a little research, or everyday people paying bills and shopping for bargains. Entertainment now represents a large percentage of daily internet traffic, with millions of people surfing the web for movies, tv shows, or YouTube videos.
It is all quite harmless, reasonable fun or education. But what most people are unaware of is the sheer level of risk they are exposing themselves to, each and every time they create an internet connection. What’s more, the problem seems to be getting worse.
From cyber-attacks to hacking, phishing, spyware, and a huge army of criminals, poised to introduce malware into your system, using the internet unprotected is just not safe anymore. The list is endless and quite alarming.
In response to this now quite common threat, a VPN service and the cloak of invisibility it provides is becoming more and more accepted by everyday consumers as an essential part of their internet life. But what are they, exactly, and why should you need one?
What Exactly Are VPN Connections?
In the most basic terms, a VPN protects you and your online activity, or internet data. When you activate a Virtual Private Network on your computer, smartphone, or even smart TV, a strong encrypted tunnel is enabled between your device and a remote server run by the company that provides the Virtual Private Network.
Usually, when you try to visit most websites, Internet Service Providers (or ISPs) act as a third party between your now secure connection at home, work, or public Wi-Fi, and the website you are visiting. But when you connect to that same website through a Virtual Private Network, it redirects your internet connection through the VPN server before connecting with the website.
In other words, it is not possible for third-party hackers to ‘see’ what you are connecting to. As far as they are concerned, your internet connection is pointing at the VPN server, and nothing more.
Your data is basically protected from potential snoopers during the VPN connection since your VPN connection is directed through this secure tunnel. Your computer basically disguises itself to have the IP address of the VPN server, because your traffic is leaving it, hiding your identity and location.
In that sense, a Virtual Private Network is simply a mask, disguising the unique digital identity of your computer, which is known as an IP address. As far as any nefarious characters are concerned, you are not using the machine you claim to be using, from the IP address you claim to be using it from. Any internet traffic through your ISP is completely disguised when using VPN connections.
What Is It Used For?
You can probably imagine how that might be beneficial. In this day and age, running a computer with an internet connection is a risky proposition: the Virtual Private Network removes most of that risk by camouflaging your machine and staying hidden from people, or software, targeting unprotected internet traffic.
It helps to envision some specific circumstances in which a VPN service might be utilized in order to appreciate its worth. Think about the free Wi-Fi that is so widely available these days, possibly in a shopping center or a fast food restaurant.
Usually, you might connect to this Wi-Fi without giving it a second thought. But do you know who might be observing the internet traffic there? Can you even be certain that the Wi-Fi network is legitimate? Could it be run by a criminal, or clever piece of software, intent on stealing your personal information?
The short answer is no, you can’t be sure. There is no way you can confidently be assured that third-party WiFi-driven internet traffic is safe. Threats are reported daily and if you check news sources for public WiFi attacks, you might be surprised how often they transpire. Some of the main issues with public WiFi networks are
- So-called ‘Man-in-the-middle’ attacks (a common threat, often employed by hackers and scammers, activated through an alarmingly high percentage of public WiWi spots)
- Unencrypted and insecure networks
- Malware installation
- Wi-Fi snooping (fraudsters and criminals using WiFi to view your device)
- Malicious WiFi hotspots
Of course, our intention here isn’t to alarm you. We are not suggesting that using public WiFi is a guaranteed way to have your bank account raided and your identity stolen, we are merely warning you that it happens way more often than most people think, and a VPN connection will reduce the risk considerably.
Personal information risk
When you consider the passwords, account details, credit card numbers, and private data that you send whenever you use the internet, the potential is rife for criminals to hijack this information, simply by accessing the non-secure connection you are using and having a good look around your device, or installing malicious software that will quietly digest personal information over weeks, months, or even years, until it is eventually detected.
With a Virtual Private Network installed on your device, you can be confident that no one on the same public Wi-Fi network (not even the network administrators) will be able to intercept your data if you connect to it using a VPN server. Most people are not aware that it can be quite challenging to determine whether or not a Wi-Fi network is what it first appears to be.
This last point is particularly significant. The free WiFi at your local shopping center, for example, does not necessarily mean that it is actually owned by the shopping center management – the chances are, a third-party provider is giving you the internet access.
Things are a little safer when you are using the internet at home, because you manage the network privately, and no one else has access to it – apart from the occasional guest, of course. But a VPN service can be useful in your own home also.
Your internet service provider has extensive knowledge about your online activities, and depending on your national location when surfing – in other words, which country you are in at the time – many ISPs are permitted to sell anonymized customer data to whoever wants to buy it.
That pretty much implies that the organization for which you pay for internet access is profiting from your data, which doesn’t seem entirely fair when you think about it.
Incognito mode is not enough!
By the very nature of what they do, an Internet Service Provider is in a trusted position in that they see everything you do online. The problem is, stopping ISPs from tracking you or ‘seeing’ your activity is a lot trickier than you might think.
Many people assume that browsing with incognito turned on will prevent ISPs, or any other third party, from seeing your search activity, or worse. This simply isn’t the case. Incognito mode barely covers the absolute basics and isn’t quite as ‘incognito’ as you may think.
The best you can hope for is that your device will not record personal information, and which websites you are visiting. The problem is, your Internet Service Provider can still see that information, and so can hackers.
Incognito mode simply provides a rather false sense of security, in a digital world full of scammers and fraudsters, and in many cases, unsuspecting web surfers have been hacked while using incognito because they have dropped their guard, assuming they are safe.
Your data Is valuable
Another consideration for using a Virtual Private Network is that you can prevent your data from being sold to advertising and marketing agencies. Again, this is something that happens way more often than most people think, but there is now a huge – and perfectly legal – industry centered around advertising and marketing, and your search habits are at the very center of it all.
Whenever you surf the internet, and especially when you use social media such as Facebook and Instagram, you are looking around specific websites which in turn creates a search pattern. ISPs and social media giants sometimes collate this information and sell it to agencies that will then advertise to you directly, based on your search habits.
You can test this out for yourself. If you spend a day or two searching for content related to cats, for example, you will soon be driven towards cat-related consumer goods in the way of affiliate advertising, or direct banner adverts.
As far as social media giants and ISPs are concerned, you have an affection for cats – so you will be presented with a barrage of advertisements relating to all things feline, cute, and hairy!
Perform the same searches through a VPN connection, and any future targeted, repetitive advertisements will reduce to a slow crawl. The VPN connection will not prevent this kind of thing entirely but will negate most of the tactics employed by advertisers.
Of course, no one is forcing you to buy these products, but the very notion that someone, somewhere, is profiting from your search habits is quite an unsettling one, for most people. To know that third-party companies are utilizing your personal preferences seems quite unfair when you think about it.
Again, a good VPN server will negate this process, entirely. By disguising your internet connection, your Internet Service Provider will not be able to see which websites you are looking at. In turn, they will not be able to use this information for profit.
In other words, a VPN connection forms a barrier between your browsing habits, and cunning advertisers using your data for profits.
Another great reason to use a VPN connection relates to geographics. Without any technical know-how whatsoever, you can set your service to ‘show’ that you are browsing from a specific country of your choice. This comes in handy in more ways than you might imagine.
The first obvious benefit of this feature relates to entertainment streaming services. Regardless of where you are in the world, VPNs allow you to watch shows on Netflix, for example, without being restricted to the content allocated for your particular country. Most countries have content restrictions in place, ensuring that you aren’t able to view specific shows that might be available in other countries.
With a VPN service, your streaming provider of choice will ‘think’ you are accessing the service from the country you select under the VPN server list of countries available – which is pretty much most countries, worldwide.
Let’s take, for example, the show “Friends”. In the UK, all ten seasons are available to subscribers accessing Netflix from the UK. In the US, however, the only way to watch all ten seasons would be through an expensive HBO subscription.
By accessing your VPN from America, and selecting the UK as your destination country, Netflix will think you are accessing the service through an internet connection in that country, and you can enjoy the show.
Having access to banned websites is another benefit of VPNs. Some governments around the world have determined that it is best for them to prevent all citizens from accessing particular websites. Sometimes, there is an understandable reason for this, but most of the time it seems quite unfair and completely arbitrary.
By using a VPN server, it is possible to connect to a nation with more liberal laws and access blocked websites. Furthermore, because VPNs encrypt online traffic, they contribute to the protection of users’ identities when they utilize this method to access the public internet. Governments are aware of this, too, which is why VPN use is being restricted in China and Russia.
Are VPNs Just For Computers?
At one stage, setting up the service would be a complicated endeavor, reserved only for those with IT ability and a deeper knowledge of basic software procedures. As the need for private networks rose and ‘everyday’ consumers began to use them, the service adapted for easier use.
These days, installing a private network is as simple as downloading the Spotify app. The first stage is to select any one of the multiple VPN providers that offer a remote access VPN service. A remote access VPN service allows you to connect to a third-party service without having to download and set up a complicated software back-end.
Once you have selected a VPN provider, hit the download button – after entering some basic account details – then click ‘install’ and the software will do its thing automatically. After installation, you simply open the app and hit ‘connect’ whenever you wish to use it. They are now designed so that literally anyone capable of turning on a computer has the ability to install and use them.
But are they restricted to computers only? With most people accessing the internet through a wide range of devices, surely the service is available on televisions, smartphones, and even routers?
The good news is that these invisible cloaks of security are indeed available on all (or at least, most) devices. What’s more, you almost certainly need VPNs installed across all devices. Your VPN provider will probably allow you to install and access the service on every device you have, while only paying one subscription.
The only catch is that you might be limited to using a certain number of devices at the same time, depending on your VPN provider of choice: different VPN providers offer slightly different terms, although most VPN services allow multiple device use in order to keep data secure without unfair multi-device charges.
On a computer or laptop, whether you are using Windows or Mac operating systems, the installation and service is pretty much the same. Simply download the VPN client, install it, and click connect, regardless of your OS of choice.
The situation is a little more complicated for mobile devices, however. Because consumers frequently use Android and iPhone smartphones to access Wi-Fi, the majority of providers provide network security apps for these platforms, which work in a similar way to a VPN client.
Although cellular connections and VPNs don’t always work quite as seamlessly as a computer secure connection, intercepting smartphone data requires a lot of work for criminals, so it might not be as essential to use VPNs on your smartphone. At least, not as essential as it is for your computer if that makes sense.
Unfortunately, not all devices can run VPN client applications. For instance, it’s unlikely that you can download the app to control your robot vac or smart fridge. The two ‘main’ devices are covered – computers and smartphones – with most other devices, however, it is really quite tricky and a slight headache trying to install a VPN.
Installing on a router
If you’re worried about this, there is a solution. Depending on your VPN provider, it is possible to set up your router to use a VPN connection or buy a router that has already been set up from certain (but not all) providers. Installing on your router isn’t quite as simple as installing on your computer or smartphone, but it isn’t overly complicated either.
By installing it on your router, you are encrypting data as it travels from your private network to the public internet. Any smart devices linked to your network will have a protected connection, and information exchanged within your network will be accessible.
The only downside with this is not being able to use the service intermittently and turning it on or off, without the hassle of accessing your router and changing the settings.
What VPNs Cant Do
With so many companies offering this service – the majority of which are simply white-labeled and resold as a third-party service – misleading information is rife. VPNs are often presented as a catch-all security system that will prevent all attacks. That simply isn’t true.
VPNs will disguise your online activity and prevent attackers from deciphering your data, and browsing habits when activated through a computer or phone. In that sense, VPNs are an essential part of your day-to-day security. But they are not the answer to all security issues, despite the rather clever methods employed by advertisers.
There are actually numerous methods to track your internet sessions. Cookies, for example, enable businesses to follow your internet usage long after you leave their websites, even when you are using a VPN.
VPN providers are not nonprofit businesses that serve the general welfare of the public, of course. They are profit-driven businesses, that must comply with subpoenas, warrants, and the laws of the nation in which they maintain their official residence.
In other words, VPNs will not protect you against any illegal activity – cross the line, and the VPN service provider is one subpoena away from revealing all of your activity to law enforcement.
Not fully protected
It is also worth noting that if criminals are determined to hack you personally, they will likely find a way, even with VPNs activated. The service will protect you against day-to-day use and common threats, but if an attacker has you in their sights, they will probably figure out how to access your information.
That is just a brutal, honest fact of modern-day life. You could compare it to home security, in a way. By installing a great alarm system and secure windows, doors, and entry points, you are protecting yourself against opportunist criminals, and in that sense, you are fine. If a professional burglar really wants to gain access, however, they will probably find a way.
The chances of this are incredibly rare, however, because most threats exist through malware that targets the public in general. VPNs will protect you from those ‘widespread’ threats, and for that reason alone, they are very much worth having.
Should You Use a VPN?
Internet security has come a long way in recent years, with most operating systems providing amazing software to protect you against threats. The problem is that hackers, fraudsters, and general scammers have improved their techniques at the same time.
For the most part, occasional internet use is quite safe, but attacks are extremely common – the chances are quite high that you know someone in your circle who has suffered an attack in some way. VPN services will not eliminate threats completely, but they will go a long way to covering the basics. Many VPN providers these days provide extra layers of security that will provide an extra layer of protection, and when combined with the basic features of the service, you will be well covered against common threats.
In our opinion, everyone should use a VPN. Considering the low monthly cost, the advantages of being protected are immense. There are few worse feelings than having your identity stolen and in this day and age, that is a very real risk.
The streaming advantages are also worth considering. If you subscribe to Netflix or Amazon, a whole new world of content becomes available when a VPN service is activated, and then there is the whole data privacy issue with savvy marketing agencies using your browsing preferences to make money.
Subscribe to a VPN, and feel safe in the knowledge that your internet experience is a whole lot safer. For the low amount it will cost you each month, you might describe it as something of an essential piece of mind.