When it comes to online privacy and security, few subjects are more important — or confusing — than Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs. Because the marketplace is full of salespeople and marketers, the public is often exposed to exaggerations or outright lies on the topic. This guide will help educate and inform you, allowing you to make better decisions for yourself about online privacy.
What a VPN Is and What It Does
A VPN is a tool allowing certain, select individuals to have access to certain data stored on certain computers. Think of it like email: everyone has email, but no one else has access to your email unless you give them your login information.
VPN is the initialism for “Virtual Private Network.” Let’s break that down.
- Network: A network is a connection between two or more computers. In this case, a connection is made over the public internet between your computer and a second computer — called a “server” — located in another city, state, or country.
- Private: To take advantage of a VPN, you either need to pay for access or work for a company that provides and uses one. In both cases, only those who have been granted access can use a VPN, not the public. Thus, private.
- Virtual: In VPN, the word “virtual” describes the word “private.” Like email, when using a VPN, you’ll use your own computer running public software over the public internet. Therefore, your connection (or network) to your VPN’s servers aren’t truly private, but “virtually private.”
So there it is: a virtual private network.
Exaggerations, Lies, and Convenient Omissions
If you’ve ever seen an ad for a VPN service or read about people who advocate for using one, then you might have gone online and done a bit of research for yourself. If so, then you’ve most certainly been exposed to exaggerations, lies, and convenient omissions from the people who are selling you on this technology. Let’s briefly examine some common misconceptions:
Using a VPN allows you to misbehave online without reprisal.
Using a VPN doesn’t magically exempt you from local, state, and federal laws that other citizens follow. Here’s a fun story about a criminal who thought he could hide his disgusting and awful online behavior behind the two VPN providers he used. He’s now in jail for 17 years.
VPN services don’t keep logs.
Logs are files that all computers generate, by default, when software runs. When you turn on your computer, it generates logs. Since VPNs run on computers, logs will be kept, only that’s not necessarily something to fear. Instead, the more important question to ask any potential VPN service is: “Which logs do you keep and for how long?” Some VPN providers log your IP address (kind of like a digital ID number), something you’ll want to avoid. Some may also decide to implement logging to help identify problem users. Here’s another fun story about a “no log” VPN provider that decided to keep logs to identify a hacker and force that person to stop misbehaving on its systems.
Your username/password can be stolen if you don’t use a VPN.
Technically, this can occur but ... it’s very complex, requires specialized software, and Wi-Fi hotspots that few people know how to set up. Avoid this problem by only joining known networks and by using a password manager. By contrast, it’s much easier to steal someone’s passwords via email, which is why that practice is far more common.
You are anonymous on the Internet when using a VPN.
Sorry. If you use a VPN and then decide to bank online, use social media online, use webmail or surf the web using the most common web browsers, then you’re not anonymous because those kinds of online behaviors are visible to many, many people.
What Does a VPN Service Offer Consumers?
Reputable VPN services can and do offer solid protections for consumers who wish to take advantage of these four benefits:
It blocks your ISP from viewing the websites where you surf.
Right now, your Internet Service Provider (or ISP) has the ability to track what you do online. That includes documenting every website you visit while connected to the Internet via their network. It’s creepy. Not only can that information be sold for advertising purposes, but it can also be provided to the authorities for certain legal purposes. Webpages from major ISPs in the United States — like Comcast, Charter Spectrum, and Cox — detail how they work with law enforcement and the data they will surrender about you if served a warrant.
Therefore, if you’d like to hide your browsing habits from your ISP then, yes, browsing while using a VPN will accomplish that. When using a VPN, your ISP will only be able to see that you’re logging in to a VPN and nothing else.
Just remember, even though your ISP won’t be able to see your browsing information, your VPN service most certainly will be able to. Therefore, choose a VPN service that regularly purges all user browsing records. This website is one of the best to help you make an educated decision before purchasing VPN software.
It prevents your ISP from prioritizing content.
Some ISPs prioritize certain websites or content. T-Mobile, for example, slows down Internet speeds for users who wish to stream video to prioritize other, non-video web traffic. Comcast intentionally slowed down Netflix for all of its users, a legal but nasty move, causing Netflix to pay Comcast extra money to end the practice.
If you use a VPN service, however, then guess what? Your ISP can’t see which websites you’re visiting online. And if they can’t see which websites you’re browsing, then they can’t decrease your speed because you’ve chosen to visit a particular website that they don’t like.
It keeps your ISP or country from blocking certain content.
If you live in a repressive country that doesn’t allow Internet access to subjects like a free press, women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, or certain types of social media, then using a VPN can, in some cases, allow you to access those kinds of websites. And, while it’s true that some countries can simply block access to known VPN providers, they respond by adding new servers with new IP addresses all the time, making this cat-and-mouse game forever playable.
It allows you to stream free data from another country’s video-on-demand service.
The BBC in the United Kingdom offers great programming that’s 100 percent free. So does the CBC in Canada. Anyone who is geographically located in the U.K. or Canada has access to stream that content freely and easily. Those in other countries cannot. Ditto, if I’m a paying Netflix customer in the U.S. but travel abroad and want access to Netflix’s American library.
But ... if my VPN service offers me the ability to connect to one of their servers located geographically in those countries, then guess what? All of that content is suddenly available to me.
Although some video-on-demand websites block certain VPN services from working, it’s worth remembering: VPN servers are being added all the time, so just make sure you pick a VPN that offers a free trial. That way, you can test the access you need before you commit to a yearly purchase.
For those wanting a deeper dive into which commercial VPN services to pick, I cover this very information in my newsletter. I invite you look there to learn more about which VPNs protect your safety, security, and privacy.
As always, surf safe.