An uncle of mine emailed me the other day to ask about VPNs and whether he should use them. “I download a lot of stuff,” he said, and was worried about security because of this.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Very simply, it’s a way to surf the Internet anonymously and securely. The idea behind using VPNs is that they are able to encrypt any data you’re sending or receiving over the public, less-secure Internet. This means that no one can snoop on your Internet activity.
How does a VPN work?
It’s actually very simple to use. First, you need a VPN program. This piece of software sits on your laptop, desktop or web browser. You can also get a VPN app for your smartphone or tablet. Once you’ve got your software, you just need to turn it on, configure it and you’re good to go.
As long as you have the VPN turned on, anything you do on the Internet will not be publicly accessible by anyone.
Why would anyone use a VPN?
There are lots of reasons to use a VPN.
People who are out of the office, but need to access the office Intranet, accounting system, or HR system would use a VPN. A VPN provides them with a secure Internet connection, like they were in the office, through which they can access sensitive, proprietary information that they don’t want broadcast all over the place.
One of the most popular things a VPN is used for is to access content from another country. Before Netflix was available here, a lot of people used a VPN to watch American Netflix. The VPN was basically allowing people to connect to Netflix through a US server and pretend that they were based there.
Another reason to use a VPN is to get around government rules that block Internet services or sites. You just cannot access Google in China, for instance. So if you visit China, you’re not going to be able to use your Gmail, Google Maps or any other Google service. The only way around it is to connect via a VPN to get around these restrictions.
Do you need a VPN?
I’d say the majority of us don’t need a VPN. Most of the sensitive things we do on the Internet (net banking, e-commerce) are secured by the provider in any case.
But if you feel you need that added bit of security, a quick search will help you compare different VPN providers.
Whatever you do though, do not use a free VPN – ever. Free VPN providers will often log all your Internet activity and then sell it to advertisers and others. Some free VPN providers also use your bandwidth and sell it to others.
As long as what you’re doing online isn’t overly sensitive or confidential, and you take reasonable precautions to stay safe while surfing, there’s really no need for a VPN. Unless, of course, you want to watch BBC iPlayer outside the UK or HBO outside the USA…