Online privacy and security has become more important with the rise of ubiquitous internet access. People now understand that their private browsing data is open to many third parties. For example, U.S. internet service providers can scoop in and sell user data without consent -- meaning that users could lose their online privacy as soon as they connect to the internet.
It's not just ISPs that do this: Companies like Google and Facebook can afford to offer their services for free because they collect and use their users’ data to serve better ads and better understand user habits. These companies track your data no matter where you live, and while ISPs in many countries claim they do not collect user data, you can be sure that they do monitor the sites you visit -- that’s the only way to stop you from visiting torrent sites that are blocked in many countries.
Things get even more complicated when you access the internet from an unsecured connection like a public Wi-Fi network, where you are open to being hacked. Hackers can usually access any device connected to an unsecured network and monitor all data coming and going.
A virtual private network (VPN) can serve as a solution to these data privacy issues. VPN technology was first used by large companies in order to allow workers located outside of their headquarters to access secure servers. When inside a closed, secure network you don’t have to worry about being hacked, but if the network you use is open (i.e., has an unencrypted connection to the internet) anyone from outside can access the data being exchanged.
VPNs work by establishing a direct connection between a user and a VPN server. This connection is then encrypted, creating an invisible internet link stretching from your computer to the VPN server, making all exchanged data secure. You may be inside a closed, private network that is encrypted, but you can still freely browse the internet. VPNs keep your connection safe and encrypted and only those with access to the unique decryption key will have access. In other words, a VPN is the perfect tool for keeping your online privacy actually private.
There are a couple of things you should know before you start using a VPN service:
What can a VPN facilitate?
In addition to keeping your connection encrypted, a VPN can also offer other benefits. You can access location-specific services with a VPN connection -- other sites will only see the IP address of the VPN server instead of your own, and if this server is in another country, that's where the IP address will originate from.
This helps if you live in a country offering poor streaming content choices, or where certain websites such as YouTube, Twitter or Google Search are blocked. A VPN will get you access to these sites by masking your IP address. However, if you want to access other countries’ IP addresses, make sure that your VPN of choice has servers located in multiple countries.
A VPN connection is also a great privacy tool if you want to access the internet from a public wireless network. By accessing a network via a VPN, no one will see what you are doing.
What are the limitations of a VPN service?
While virtual private networks safeguard your privacy by blocking third parties (like ISPs and hackers) from seeing the sites you visit, the email address you use, your Google search history and so on, they cannot stop the sites you visit from collecting your data.
If you visit Facebook via a VPN and log in to your account, Facebook is still collecting your data. Once logged on you will see ads for products, services and sites linked to the IP address of the VPN server you are using. For example, if you use a VPN server located in France you will receive ads for Amazon.fr, French websites and other services located in that country.
And although a VPN can stop Google from tracking your location, it cannot stop it from collecting and using your search queries or from seeing your browsing history on Chrome or your Google account.
Be warned: Using a VPN will not protect your private data – such as usernames or passwords – in the case of a data breach. Using a VPN will simply mask your location.
Choosing the right VPN service
Before you choose you should know that they are divided into two large groups – free and paid. Free always sounds good, but some of the free VPN services available allow ads while others collect your data. So, research is advised.
The main weakness for most free VPNs lies in the limited data they offer; therefore, they cannot be used for streaming sites or for downloading torrent files. Most free VPN solutions offer paid tiers, which come with plenty of bonus features that, in most cases, completely justify the price. For example, paid VPN services often offer a higher number of servers users can connect to, with much faster connection speeds. Also, by using paid VPN service you can rest assured your browsing data won’t be used for serving you targeted ads, which is done by some free VPN services.
Next, we have the type of encryption used by various VPN services. There are multiple decryption techniques used by various VPN services. They include IP security, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), Secure Shell (SSH), OpenVPN Protocol, and Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP).
The most popular choices used by most VPN services include L2TP combined with IP Security, which together make one extremely secure encryption, and OpenVPN which is an extremely secure protocol that works on any device and any operating system. Most services allow users to pick protocol they want to use so we recommend picking one of the two mentioned above.
Today, practically all sites today are protected with SSL certificate and almost every VPN solution comes with 256-bit AES encryption (which is extremely secure). If the VPN service you're looking at doesn't offer 256-bit AES encryption, skip it.
If you plan on using a VPN on your mobile device (and you should definitely do that) make sure that the VPN service of your choice comes with a mobile app. Most premium services also offer a free trial period, so take advantage of this and pay attention to the connection speed. Test the service of your choice for the whole free trial period (if you go premium), because some of them offer variable connection speeds that can slow down during busy hours. Also, the further the VPN server is from your location, the slower the connection will be, so choose a service that comes with lots of servers in different countries.
Use this knowledge to choose your VPN service wisely, and take comfort in the fact that while using your newly chosen VPN, you and your privacy are more protected.