We are increasingly living our lives online, a situation that has become more pronounced thanks to the pandemic. At the same time, people have become more aware of their privacy – or lack of it – and what they can do to keep internet companies out of their business.
It’s no longer a case of not worrying if you have nothing to hide. It’s about a right to privacy and getting online without having your every move watched and recorded by unknown observers, regardless of whether they are friend or foe.
With that in mind, it seems like a good time to start talking about VPNs, and why you may want to consider their use.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for virtual private network. It essentially creates a private tunnel through the internet for your online traffic, keeping it away from prying eyes. It provides an extra layer of security between you and the rest of the world, meaning ad trackers can’t build a profile of you, malicious users can’t see what you’re doing online and you can browse the web in relative anonymity.
How does it work?
Each device connected to the internet is assigned an IP address, a unique identifier that allows your device to receive information in the same way that your postal address allows you to receive letters. However, it not only identifies your devices but could potentially allow others to identify you.
Enter the virtual private network. It anonymises your web traffic, encrypts the data going through it and hides your online footprints by bouncing your traffic through its private, encrypted servers. That means people can see you are connected to the internet, but unless they can find a way through the encryption, they can’t see what you are doing.
Why do I need one?
There are many reasons why using a VPN is a good idea. Many companies, for example, use VPNs to give their employees remote access to their internal systems.
For most people, the principal reason for using a VPN is to protect their privacy. By using encrypted servers, your online activity is more secure and hidden away from prying eyes. That could be as simple as defeating the marketers and their tracking software, making it impossible for them to build up a profile of you linked to your IP address. Or it could be more serious, providing you with an additional layer of protection against potential hackers, or defeating state surveillance. As previous revelations about the activities of the NSA and GCHQ revealed, even those with relatively little to hide can be snooped on.
Secondly, a VPN can unlock geoblocked content. That could be everything from your streaming video service to websites that have been blocked due to local censorship. Because you are using the VPN’s servers rather than a local internet service provider, you can choose your location, making it seem like you are farther from – or closer to – home than you actually are.
Thirdly, VPNs can be more secure, especially when you are using public wifi hot spots. Because your traffic is routed through the service provider’s encrypted servers, it can protect the data you send from those who want to intercept it for their own means, whether that is sending confidential emails or doing some online shopping. If you are really concerned about security, though, you can always avoid doing anything too sensitive until you are on a known and trusted internet connection.
Why shouldn’t I use a VPN?
A VPN is not a magic wand that will fix all your internet privacy woes. Its encryption is only as good as the provider implements, so if security is your key feature, choose a provider that offers strong encryption.
For other people, the main drawback could be a slowdown in web browsing.
Another thing to consider: some services block VPNs from their systems. For example, Netflix bans the use of such services from its streaming platform, and using them could put your account at risk. It's mainly down to licensing agreements for content; Netflix could have the rights to provide a certain film or TV show in Ireland but not in the US. Up until a few years ago, the service took a softer approach to people getting around geoblocks, but these days it uses some pretty powerful technology to detect when you are using a VPN.
Amazon Prime is another service that bans the use of the software to access its services.
However, some services can still slip through the net.
What else do I need to know?
It won’t protect everything: while VPNs will help hide a lot, there are still some ways that your online activity could be viewed. If you accept cookies from a site, they will still be on your machine. And if you are signed in to your browser’s account while using the internet, your search history could still be saved to your account. And even though your ISP won’t have access to your web traffic that has been routed through a VPN, the VPN service provider will, so make sure you trust your provider.
Do your research
Not all VPNs are created equal. Choose a reputable company, and one that uses strong encryption, usually AES 128-bit or 256-bit. And as previously mentioned, your VPN provider essentially has access to all your online traffic, so choose one with a no-logging policy.
Apps versus extensions
While a VPN app will essentially perform the same function as an extension on your browser, the difference is in the traffic they cover. An extension on your browser will, as the name suggests, only cover the internet traffic coming through your browser. An app on your mobile device, your router or your smart TV will cover all the traffic going through the devices; a browser extension will only cover traffic through the web browser.
The legal side
VPNs are legal in most countries, but some countries regulate or ban them outright. That doesn’t mean people there don’t use them. In some cases, only an approved list of VPNs can operate in the country. Others block the services completely, and others impose fines on those caught using them.
And as already mentioned, the use of VPNs to circumvent geoblocks on content can break the terms and conditions of some services, putting your account at risk.
How do I get a VPN?
Most VPNs will require a subscription of some sort, so the first step is to sign up for an account with a service provider. Then you can download the software on compatible tablets, smartphones, laptops, smart TVs, streaming sticks, routers and so on. All you have to do is switch it on before you start browsing and your internet traffic will be hidden from prying eyes.
What are the options?
There are plenty of VPN providers out there, making it difficult to choose the best one for your needs.
Easy to set up and compatible with everything from Android to Linux, Express VPN is widely considered one of the better ones, with favourable reviews of its privacy and security. It is also considered a Netflix-friendly VPN.
Express VPN has a no-logging policy, a claim that was tested in the real world when a server was seized in the investigation into the assassination of a Russian ambassador. A search of the server turned up no usable data, which Express VPN says validates its claims. The company also has its no-logging claims audited.
With access to more than 5,000 servers worldwide, Nord VPN comes with a lot of choice. It also has credibility on its side, with a record for privacy and security.
It’s a little pricier than some of its rivals, but it is among the faster VPNs. It also has a no-logging policy, meaning your online activity stays with you, and that is verified and audited by PwC.
Proton VPN, based in Switzerland, is well known for its encrypted email service. The VPN service is equally worthy. It offers a free plan for a single VPN connection to 24 servers on three countries with medium speeds; the high speed connections and wider choice of servers are limited to the paid-for plans, which cost €4-€24 a month. Traffic is routed through privacy-friendly countries, in an attempt to mitigate sophisticated attacks, and the service has a no-logging policy.
SurfShark offers a suite of powerful and reasonably priced security tools to protect your online browsing, including blocking ad trackers as your surf. The VPN isn’t expensive, and it has some handy features, such as the ability to allow certain sites such as banking apps to bypass the VPN, and a Camouflage Mode that means not even your ISP can tell you are using a VPN. Like the others, it has a no-logging policy.