Until a few years ago, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) weren’t part of the public discourse. You weren’t expected to know or care about a VPN unless you were a tech nerd or worked in IT. That’s not the case nowadays. The Internet is embedded in our lives to such an extent that everything we do or say online can collide with our offline selves in myriads of ways. This is why everyone should have a basic understanding of VPNs.
What can a VPN do?
A VPN is a private network that allows you to access the Internet while masking your identity. It prevents your data from being leaked to bad actors by creating an encrypted connection between your device and the Internet via the VPN provider’s servers. Apart from hiding your IP address and browsing activities, a VPN lets you access restricted websites, securely connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots, and bypass geographic restrictions among other things.
A VPN is also a great solution if you think you’re facing that dreaded “Internet throttle”. What does this mean? Well, if you’ve ever wondered why you’re feeling the lag while playing games online, watching streaming videos, downloading stuff, accessing websites heavy on content and so on, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) might be deliberately slowing down your connection. You can get rid of this doubt by looking up “speed test” online and checking your download and upload speeds.
The next step is to sign up for a service (preferably a paid one with a free trial period — more on this later) such as CyberGhost, Surfshark or IPVanish which will hide your IP address. Then run the test once again. If you see a definite improvement in the speed, it’s highly likely your ISP is throttling your bandwidth. Service providers usually do this for several reasons:
- To reduce network congestion during peak hours
- When a user has crossed their data limit
- To save money by slowing down the Internet speed for data-hungry users
- To coerce customers into signing up for a costlier data plan
Without a VPN encrypting your Internet connection and rerouting it through a secure server, a ton of information about you such as your physical location based on your IP address, the websites you visit and the amount of time you spend browsing them, can be accessed by your ISP, government surveillance systems, websites, corporations and cybercriminals.
Many governments have mandatory data retention laws which ensure ISPs are legally bound to store and turn over information about their users’ online activities. Apart from this, ISPs are also known to sell customers’ data to third parties for ad targeting. This is why anyone concerned about their right to privacy should make use of a VPN if possible.
With regards to the other everyday advantages of a VPN, online content that’s restricted based on the user’s geographical whereabouts can be unlocked via location spoofing through a secure virtual network. You can even save money on online purchases, flight tickets, hotel reservations and more by geo-spoofing.
Are VPNs legal?
The UAE, China and North Korea are some of the few countries across the globe which regulate VPN usage. Using a VPN service is legal in most other nations, especially in the Western world. In fact, companies have been leaning on VPNs for years in order to allow employees to work remotely while maintaining data security. As long as individuals are not using such services to conduct unlawful activities or circumvent censorship laws in their region, they’re perfectly entitled to sign up for VPNs.
Basic checklist when choosing a VPN
- Do not sign up for a free VPN service since too many have been found to indulge in activities such as selling their users’ data to corporations, among other unsavory things. Every business has to somehow make money, after all. Before you pay up, look for one with a free trial period so you can ensure that it suits your needs and does not seriously impact your Internet speed.
- Use a service that comes with a ‘kill switch’ feature. This will stop your online activity and IP address from becoming visible to your ISP in case the link to your VPN is severed all of a sudden while you’re still connected to the web.
- Check out the provider’s logging policies in the T&Cs. Services that collect minimal connection logs or no logs at all are the safest bets.
- The VPN of your choice shouldn’t require you to be extremely tech savvy in order install it and start using it on any supported device.
- 24/7 customer care should also be on the checklist.
- Research the basics such as the number of servers available for you to connect to, the daily data usage cap, how many devices the subscription covers and speed limits. All of this information should be easily available on the official website of the VPN you have in mind.
VPNs cannot promise 100% anonymity online, neither can they fully shield you from browser fingerprinting. But the good ones will offer a comfortable level of security from those who want to spy on your online activities. Lastly, you should always have antivirus protection installed on the PC and mobile device you use to access the Internet regardless of whether you have your VPN turned on or not.