One of the most important skills any computer user should have is the ability to use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect their privacy. A VPN is typically a paid service that keeps your web browsing secure and private over public Wi-Fi hotspots. VPNs can also get past regional restrictions for video- and music-streaming sites and help you evade government censorship restrictions—though that last one is especially tricky.
How it works
The best way to think of a VPN is as a secure tunnel between your PC and destinations you visit on the internet. Your PC connects to a VPN server, which can be located in the United States or a foreign country like the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, or Thailand. Your web traffic then passes back and forth through that server. The end result: As far as most websites are concerned, you’re browsing from that server’s geographical location, not your computer’s location.
We’ll get to the implications of a VPN’s location in a moment, but first, let’s get back to our secure tunnel example. Once you’re connected to the VPN and are “inside the tunnel,” it becomes very difficult for anyone else to spy on your web-browsing activity. The only people who will know what you’re up to are you, the VPN provider (usually an HTTPS connection can mitigate this), and the website you’re visiting.
When you’re on public Wi-Fi at an airport or café, that means hackers will have a harder time stealing your login credentials or redirecting your PC to a phony banking site. Your Internet service provider (ISP), or anyone else trying to spy on you, will also have a near impossible time figuring out which websites you’re visiting.
On top of all that, you get the benefits of spoofing your location. If you’re in Los Angeles, for example, and the VPN server is in the U.K., it will look to most websites that you’re browsing from there, not southern California.
This is why many regionally restricted websites and online services such as BBC’s iPlayer or Sling TV can be fooled by a VPN. I say “most” services because some, most notably Netflix, are fighting against VPN (ab)use to prevent people from getting access to, say, the American version of Netflix when they’re really in Australia.
For the most part, however, if you’re visiting Belgium and connect to a U.S. VPN server, you should get access to most American sites and services just as if you were sitting at a Starbucks in Chicago.
What a VPN can’t do
While VPNs are an important tool, they are far from foolproof. Let’s say you live in an oppressive country and want to evade censorship in order to access the unrestricted web. A VPN would have limited use. If you’re trying to evade government restrictions and access sites like Facebook and Twitter, a VPN might be useful. Even then, you’d have to be somewhat dependent on the government’s willingness to look the other way.
Anything more serious than that, such as mission-critical anonymity, is far more difficult to achieve—even with a VPN. Privacy against passive surveillance? No problem. Protection against an active and hostile government? Probably not.
The problem with anonymity is there are so many issues to consider—most of which are beyond the scope of this article. Has the government surreptitiously installed malware on your PC in order to monitor your activity, for example? Does the VPN you want to use have any issues with data leakage or weak encryption that could expose your web browsing? How much information does your VPN provider log about your activity, and would that information be accessible to the government? Are you using an anonymous identity online on a PC that you never use in conjunction with your actual identity?
Anonymity online is a very difficult goal to achieve. If, however, you are trying to remain private from prying eyes or evade NSA-style bulk data collection as a matter of principle, a reputable VPN will probably be good enough.
Beyond surveillance, a VPN also won’t do much to keep advertisers from tracking you online. Remember that the website you visit is aware of what you do on its site and that applies equally to advertisers serving ads on that site.
Choosing a VPN provider
Choosing a VPN provider will be posted in the part two of this series of posts.