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Do I Need a VPN to Protect My Privacy? A VPN Overview

What’s this all about? VP what?

The term ‘VPN’ comes up whenever privacy is discussed, but neither the acronym nor the underlying name (Virtual Private Network) makes it clear as to what a VPN is or does. But it’s worth understanding what they are, why they’re important, when you should use one, and how to choose the right one.

What does a VPN do?

When you connect to the internet with a phone, laptop, or tablet, via a browser or app– the data you’re sending and receiving is frequently transmitted without encryption. This means anyone, your boss, your employer, your local coffee shop, can get a hold of the bits of data and information going in and out of your computer to find out what you did, what you typed, what data came back – essentially everything they could learn if they were sitting next to you watching your screen.

A VPN does three critical things to help keep you private.

  • It encrypts your internet traffic so no one can see the sites you’re visiting – they can only see that you’re using a VPN.
  • It also hides specific meta-data, such as your DNS lookups, from your ISP or wireless mobile provider, so they don’t know what your doing on the internet and they don’t have a list of the sites you’ve gone to.
  • It hides your IP address and even lets you “set” a location, giving you internet access as if you were in a different part of the world.

A VPN is an essential tool if you want to keep web browsing private and secure and free from the sight of governments, hackers, or even the companies you’re doing business with like your own ISP

Additional uses for a VPN

In addition to privacy and security, VPN users can also gain access to content that is otherwise restricted by their countries. VPNs help skirt copyright restrictions by routing the data through servers in a different country, which, for example, makes the target website think you’re logging in from Spain when you’re really sitting in your Manhattan apartment. Access to geographically regulated entertainment content is the top reason for VPN use around the world, according to a 2018 report from GlobalWebIndex. Other users also choose VPNs to access social networks and news sites that are blocked in certain places around the world.

When should I use a VPN?

Since a VPN is encrypting the network traffic on a device, your use depends on which device you’re using, the network you’re on, and what you’re doing on the internet.

One option is to adopt a ‘universal VPN’ policy, and essentially use a VPN on every device, no matter where you are. Once you’ve set-up VPNs on most phones, computers, or tablets, it’s easy to just leave them running all the time. This approach isn’t perfect, however. The downside is that is some slowdown in your network connectivity, some extra connection time, and certain websites, apps, or services won’t work properly so you’ll have to turn them off.

Another option is to limit your VPN use to ‘less secure’ devices or locations. It’s perfectly reasonable to not bother using a VPN in your home or office, for example. Your internet traffic is going over your chosen ISP (or your job’s ISP), so it’s unlikely to be intercepted by ‘bad guy’ third parties. In those cases, there’s not really a compelling reason to deal with the slow down and occasional broken sites. On the other hand, because your ISP gets to know which sites you visit, they may sell or share that info. So if that bothers you, use a VPN at home and office. If it doesn’t, don’t. Take some time to think it through.

Here are some of our quick recommendations as to when, where, and why you should use a VPN.

Public Wifi – YES (shared, hotels, shops, etc.)

Public WiFi is exactly that. Public. So whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network, always turn your VPN on.

Office

Sometimes. For personal devices, we recommend turning on a VPN so your device isn’t flagged by your company’s IT department because of how you were using it at work.

Home

If you’re concerned about your ISP selling your browser history or spying on you, you want to turn on your VPN.

Cellular

This scenario is the same as the above, but in regards to your mobile carrier.

The takeaway

Using a VPN can get annoying and will likely slow down your browsing experience so you might not find yourself wanting to use it all the time. Find the balance that works for you and be really mindful as to which scenarios you find yourself really wanting to keep your web traffic hidden.

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