Every day people all over the world use the internet to work, communicate, and entertain themselves. But not many of them consider how easy it is for others to intercept their data and use it for their own ends. And that happens more often than you might imagine.
Big businesses like Amazon and Google power their vast empires using your internet usage data. ISPs collect, store, and analyze your usage data and sell it to third parties. And cybercriminals cast wide nets looking for personal information they can use to steal your identity.
But there’s a way you can stop them.
You can use a virtual private network (VPN) to shield your browsing habits and personal data from those looking to capture it. It’s a simple solution to a complex and dangerous problem. But before you entrust your privacy to a one, you should know something about them. To help, here’s an overview of VPNs. We’ll cover what they are, how they protect your privacy and the other benefits of using one. If you’re ready, let’s dive right in.
The Fundamental Insecurity of the Internet
To understand what a VPN is, you must first understand a bit about how the internet works. The internet itself is a vast global network that connects millions of smaller networks together. For example, your home network connects to the rest of the world over a link provided by your internet service provider (ISP).
The whole system relies on the idea that all internet-connected devices have their own unique numerical addresses. They’re called IP addresses, and they make it possible for internet-connected devices to transmit data to and from one another. But because you don’t control all of the smaller networks your data passes through on the internet, you have to trust the owners of those networks not to eavesdrop on your connection.
What is a VPN and How Does it Protect Your Privacy?
Put simply, it’s a piece of software that uses encryption to establish a secure data connection to an endpoint server on the internet. That server – owned and operated by your virtual private network provider – then becomes the point where your data exits onto the public internet. And that provides you with several privacy advantages.
The first advantage is that it obscures your real IP address. As far as the rest of the world can see, your data is coming from the IP address of the endpoint server and not your own. And because the server handles the traffic for multiple users at once, it’s all but impossible for anyone to tell your data apart from anyone else’s. And a reputable service provider won’t keep any logs connecting your activity back to your IP address or account. That helps to anonymize your traffic so nobody can attribute it to you.
And the second advantage is that the encryption provided by a VPN reinforces the security of your internet connection itself. For example, when you connect a device to a public hotspot or another network you don’t own, you’re trusting that network to keep your data secure. But that’s a big risk. Cybercriminals often set up public hotspots explicitly to harvest the data of anyone unfortunate enough to connect to them.
But a VPN prevents anyone between your device and the endpoint server from having the ability to see your data. Because only your device and the endpoint you’re connected to have the keys to decode your traffic – malicious actors can collect as much of it as they like and they’ll never be able to decode it.
The Added Benefits of Using a VPN
Enhanced privacy and security aren’t the only benefits you get by using a virtual private network. Many people also use them for other reasons, including:
Unlocking geo-restricted media – Plenty of people use VPN services to gain access to media and other content that they’d otherwise not be able to see due to location restrictions. Netflix, for example, offers a total of 13,612 titles in its global catalog. But because of licensing restrictions, most users can only see a third or less of those titles from their home country. But by connecting to endpoint servers in different countries you can see everything the streaming giant has to offer.
Avoiding bandwidth throttling – For various reasons, ISPs and other network owners sometimes restrict the connection speeds of users connecting to certain sites and services. They defend the practice by claiming that certain activities (like streaming and real-time video communications) use too much bandwidth and may overwhelm their networks. But VPNs help you avoid throttling because network owners won’t have any way to know what sites and services you’re using, to begin with.
Avoiding censorship – In some places around the world, ISPs and governments put restrictions in place to censor what they don’t want you to see online. China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – among others – are well known for doing this. But using a VPN can defeat censorship by preventing authorities from knowing what you’re looking at online, thus preventing them from censoring it.
Gaining access to financial websites while traveling – In some countries, local banking regulations restrict banks and other financial firms from doing business with foreign citizens. Unfortunately, this means even legitimate account holders may not be able to access their accounts while traveling overseas. But by connecting to an endpoint server in their home country, they can regain access to those accounts while they travel.
The Bottom Line
Although there’s no such thing as bulletproof security and privacy on the internet, using a virtual private network does help quite a bit. By adding encryption to your device’s internet connection, they make it far more difficult for any third parties to keep tabs on your online activities.
Plus, VPNs come with enough added benefits that their use is worthwhile even for those who aren’t worried about their privacy and security. And now that you know all about them – you should consider signing up for one and making it a part of your digital life today.