Do You Need a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for Your Internet Safety?

Your non-tech explanation of what a VPN is and how to get one: Internet Scambusters #813

Virtual private networks, VPNs for short, are one of the simplest ways of protecting your Internet security.

But what is a VPN and what should you take into account when finding and installing one?

In this week’s issue, we’ll give you the answers you need in straightforward, non-technical language.

Now, here we go…

Do You Need a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for Your Internet Safety?

In the clamor for better Internet privacy, people often talk about using a virtual private network, or VPN for short.

There’s no doubt that a VPN can increase your security, especially when you’re on the move and using public networks. But they can also help stop people tracking you when you’re using your home network.

But what is a VPN, how do you find and install one, and how much does it cost?

First, don’t stop reading if you’re worried that this is going to be a bit of technical mumbo jumbo. You don’t need any technical knowledge at all to set one up and use it on your home computer or mobile device.

What is a VPN?

From the user’s point of view, a virtual private network is accessed via an app or program you install on your computer.

This software creates a sort of secure “tunnel” from your computer/mobile to a privately-owned server.

This conceals information about your computer’s Internet identity (known as your IP address), so no one knows who or where you are.

The VPN server is your gateway to the Internet. And, for good measure, most VPNs encrypt or jumble the data between you and the Internet, so no one can even know what information you’re sending or collecting.

In most cases, the encryption means that even the VPN service provider can’t read the data either, though they obviously can tell who you are through your connections and your VPN subscription.

This all happens behind the scenes. Once you fire up your device and launch the VPN, it works in the background and you feel like you’re simply using your computer or mobile device in normal mode — though if the VPN is busy, you may notice a slowing down when you try to connect with certain websites.

How to Find and Install a VPN

Literally hundreds of firms operate VPNs. Some of them are free, some are expensive and most of them are somewhere in between, perhaps costing a few dollars a month. You really need to do your research to find the one that best meets your needs.

Again, this isn’t a technical exercise. According to the well-known, savvy-consumer website, your main considerations are:

  • Cost versus security. Generally, the more secure the VPN servers, the more they cost. Unless you’re regularly exchanging confidential, valuable information, you’re probably fine with one of the lower cost options.
  • Whether the provider keeps a record of your browsing activity. If they keep records, these may be open to access by hackers or even government security services.
  • Whether they use the same IP address for multiple users. If they do, it’s more difficult for determined hackers to identify you.
  • Where the VPN servers are located and how many there are. Many of the large service providers have servers in many countries, making it easier and faster to access websites in any particular country.
  • Whether apps or software are available for all your devices. Some VPNs might not be available for smart phones.

There’s more, of course. And you can access the full Lifehacker article, The Beginner’s Guide to VPNs, for more information.

The article also contains a link to a huge list of VPNs, comparing them feature for feature.

Installing your VPN is straightforward. You just add it like you would any other app or program and then use its settings to meet your personal needs — such as whether you want it to run all the time or only when you manually start it.

Are There Limitations to a VPN’s Effectiveness?

Potentially, yes.

First, as mentioned, they may slow down your Internet access if they’re busy.

Second, as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission points out, using a VPN means you’re giving the app permission to intercept all your web activity.

And third, you need to be sure you’re using an established, reputable service because some of them, notably some free or cut-price services, may not encrypt your data and some have been found to be sharing data with other companies for commercial purposes. Some asked subscribers to provide sensitive information.

Fourth, using a VPN usually doesn’t give you total anonymity.

Says the Commission: “Instead, the app will typically obscure the content of your traffic from your Internet service provider or public Wi-Fi provider, shifting trust from those networks to the VPN app provider. In addition, sites you visit may be able to determine that you are using a VPN app and can still use any identifying information you directly share with them (for example, filling out a form with your email address) to track you.”

So, it’s important to do your research, especially by checking outside reviews.

You should also review the permissions requested by the app — in other words, the type of information it will access (such as your text messages). You’ll usually find this on the app’s download page.

Provided you do research and even bearing in mind the limitations we’ve outlined, using a VPN is still an important and valuable step you can take to increase your Internet safety.

Alert of the Week

Do you have a router — that little box connected to your modem that connects all your devices, wired and Wi-Fi, to the Internet?

If so, and you haven’t already done this, go switch it off and on again.

That’s the advice from the FBI after they discovered hundreds of thousands of home routers have been secretly hijacked and infected with malware. Rebooting should clear the infection if it’s there.

Also change the router password if you can and limit external access to it.

If you don’t know how to do these things, check the manual or the manufacturer’s website. It’s important.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!