With increasing data leaks and shady business practices, you may have heard that you should start using a VPN to prevent individuals and companies from tracking your online activity. If you've never heard of a VPN before, it might sound like it's difficult to set up (it's not!). If you have heard of it but haven't gotten around to using it, we're going to look at all the reasons you should and how it works.
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) masks your IP address by routing the connection through the VPN's private server, encrypting it, and then sending it to the site you're trying to reach. This means that when your data is sent to this site, it comes from the VPN and not your computer. Since the information is encrypted, if anyone does intercept the transmission, it will be unreadable.
Essentially, the VPN creates an encrypted 'tunnel' to send your data through. This is especially important when you're using free public Wi-Fi, as it means that hackers targeting these types of unsecured networks can't steal your data.
This is one of the main reasons that people use VPNs. The encryption 'tunnel' that a VPN provides ensures that no one can spy or steal your data. Free and/or public Wi-Fi is not the only risk – your internet service provider (ISP) can also be monitoring your online activity.
While your ISP is not actively listening to your phone, it still monitors your online activity and even collects your data. This includes:
The reason for this data collection is that ISPs can profit off of it. Brands and companies can approach the ISP to target specific ads to 'users who log in during this time' or 'users who spend most of their time on X website/s'.
In the US, this is a big problem. Net neutrality was repealed in 2017 under the Trump administration, giving ISPs permission to collect, share, and sell consumer data. An FCC vote reconfirmed this decision in 2020. While the Biden administration is looking to bring back net neutrality, the bill has not been passed yet, so you're better off using a VPN for now.
Free Wi-Fi is an unnecessary risk. Since it is unsecured, hackers can easily gain access to the network and steal your data. Essentially, the hacker can place himself between you and the intended connection point, which means that any information you send out, whether that's a text message or your email and password, will go directly to the hacker first.
So, if you find yourself stuck at the airport or hotel and forced to use the free Wi-Fi, be sure to use a VPN. Your information will be encrypted before it reaches the hacker, who will then discard it instead of trying to decrypt it. The hacker will most likely switch to someone else who is not using a VPN instead of wasting time on the few users that are.
You should also be aware that some hackers can create 'rogue' or 'twin' hotspots. This means they can set up another hotspot with the same name as the public Wi-Fi, which people might connect to, thinking it's the real hotspot. For this purpose, you're best off using a VPN or not connecting to public Wi-Fi at all.
If you work at an office, you usually need to connect to the local area network (LAN) to access your work files. With a VPN, you can access this information remotely because you can connect to the LAN from home.
This has become a significant benefit for many people who are stuck working from home during the pandemic. In Canada, only 4% of the workforce aged 16-59 worked from home in 2016, but this jumped to 32% in 2021. In the UK, nearly 50% of employed adults had worked from home in April 2020, while the US saw 1 in 4 Americans doing so by 2021.
Many countries have still imposed national or regional lockdowns, which means many employees are still working from home. Indeed, research has shown that people will likely continue to work from home after the pandemic is over across most countries. This means a VPN will be of great use both for now and for the future.
While sometimes you can experience slow speeds, a VPN can also offer you a faster internet connection. Choosing a server in the same country can help you with that. Most VPNs will provide you with the chance to 'choose the closest' or 'fastest' server.
You have probably already heard of airlines bumping up ticket prices after you look at the page once, and it's true. After visiting the page once, you'll realize that the prices have increased the second or third time you check. This is done to pressure the customers into buying the ticket under the false belief that the prices will increase soon.
VPNs let you access websites that might be banned or inaccessible where you are. I'm not only talking about streaming Netflix, which is yet another advantage, but other sites too. For example, if you're on holiday or on a work trip, you might not be able to access your company site or other important accounts because you're not in the country. You might also be automatically redirected to the host country site.
For this reason, a VPN is your best bet. You can easily bypass these kinds of restrictions by choosing the server from your home or intended country and regain access to the website you need.
While many blogs do advise the use of VPNs for this purpose, this is a grey area. Censorship is definitely one reason that many people choose to use a VPN. Internet censorship policies have been increasing in recent years, with countries blocking certain websites and news sites. While many of these countries have also blocked VPN use, many VPNs are still available in these countries.
However, there is a reason for concern here. Firstly, countries that ban VPN can find if someone is using a VPN, even if they don't know exactly what the person is doing with it. Secondly, unblocked VPNs (VPNs permitted for use in the country by the government) might not necessarily be safe. As an example, we can look at China. VPNs are not entirely banned there – the government is aware that they are necessary for work purposes. However, the government has chosen to block certain providers. This certainly raises the question – are the providers who aren't banned keeping logs? If this is the case, there is no point using them.
Bypassing censorship is a tricky topic. While foreigners and tourists are usually safe in these situations, citizens of these countries are in a different position. There is an abundance of blogs and research available specific to countries that have blocked VPNs, and I would recommend having a look there first.
No. As has often been said, if you're not paying for the product, the product is you. That's mostly true in this situation. Free VPNs are known to log your traffic and sell it, which means you're not really benefitting from using a VPN, as this is what we're trying to prevent.
I have tested several free VPNs in the past, and you're most likely better off not using one at all. They are extremely slow no matter what server you choose, and they often work poorly. For example, you'll find many of the servers are either slow or don't connect at all.
You don't really need free VPNs. Many VPNs come at a low cost. You can get Surfshark, a well-known, reputable one, for only $2.49/month. Many others come at a similar price, so I highly recommend choosing one like that instead of a free one.