Should You Get a VPN?
Virtual Private Networks (VPN), helps lock down your web traffic and keep your online activity anonymous. This helps to safeguard you from hackers or advertisers that want to monetize your data. A massive amount of personal data is transmitted over the internet daily. VPNs allow you to better secure your data and have more control over how you are identified when using the internet.
VPNs work by creating an encrypted link between you and the VPN’s remote service. Your internet activity is sent through this link, keeping your data secure. Additionally, your IP address is masked and instead appears to be the IP address of the VPN server. With a VPN, it is very difficult to trace anything back to you.
VPNs are incredibly valuable. If you use the Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop or airport, anyone could be watching that network. The connection may even be controlled by someone attempting to steal your data, such as passwords, bank information, or credit card numbers. By connecting to public Wi-Fi with a VPN, you’re removing the ability for anyone to grab your data.
However, VPNs do have some limitations. Cookies let web services such as Amazon or Google track your internet activity even long after you’ve left their website. VPNs cannot fully block cookies and VPNs only allow for certain levels of anonymity. Additionally, VPNs are not above the law. The companies that provide VPN services are still required to respond to subpoenas and warrants when requested. VPNs also only operate under the laws of the country in which they reside, so if you are purchasing a VPN from another country this is something to be mindful of as many countries do not require the retention of user data.
When the internet was created, security and user privacy was not much of a concern. Today’s internet is much different than when it was first developed, but not many changes have been made. Only in the past few years has HTTPS become more commonplace. Because of the lack of changes, ultimately it’s up to the user to protect themselves. VPNs offer another tool in your toolkit, along with antivirus software and password managers. There are free VPN services, or you can pay to have an encrypted router.
In reality, there are no perfect tools that will protect you from any and all threats. If someone really wants to hack your individual data specifically, they probably will be able to. Malware on your devices can block VPNs, or can even analyze patterns to correlate activity to the activity on your VPN server. However, VPNs do make you less of an easy target.
So what are some reasons that you might want to get a VPN? The NSA and your ISP are two good reasons alone. The NSA has the ability to grab and analyze almost everything that goes on in the web. With a VPN, your encrypted data is much harder to trace back to you.
It’s also possible that your ISP (internet service provider) is looking at your data. When the FCC recently rolled back rules that protected net neutrality, ISPs were allowed to profit off of user data. ISPs can gather huge amounts of data about its users and use that information to target advertistements or sell the data directly to other companies. Because of limited ISP offerings, especially in some areas of the country, it may leave you with no choice in what is going on with your data. Organizations such as Facebook and Google have used data such as this to skyrocket their growth. Even if you don’t use services such as Facebook or Google, your ISP can still make money off of your online behavior.
The benefits of using a VPN are great, but there are some drawbacks to consider. If you use streaming products such as Chromecast, your Chromecast or AppleTV won’t be able to connect when you are sending over encrypted data from your laptop, tablet, or smart phone. Smart home devices such as Alexa or Google Home also cannot function on a VPN. However, you can consider installing a VPN on your home router (TechLoris has some great information on how to do this). This allows for information only sent within your home network to remain unencrypted.
Streaming services such as Netflix also doesn’t play nicely with VPNs. Because Netflix operates differently and has varied licensing agreements based on the country you’re in, VPNs are blocked. Also, if you’re downloading through BitTorrent, those are generally blocked by VPN companies, mainly because BitTorrent is often used to pirate copyrighted materials.
Your internet speed is also something to consider before using a VPN. Because of the additional securities that the connection must go through, your speed is likely to suffer. You may or may not notice a huge jump in speed depending on which VPN you’re using or what your behavior is. However, behaviors such as internet gaming are likely to see some consequences from reduced speed.
There is a lot to consider when deciding if a VPN is right for you. Maybe you want to lock down all of your internet activity, or maybe you just want to use a VPN when on a public network. Either way, it’s worth looking into if your data and security is of concern to you.