First, what is a VPN? An informal explanation is that a Virtual Private Network allows users to send encrypted messages over the web in a way that prevents hackers who monitor the web from tracking them. Formal definitions are often technical and many imply that VPNs are for business use. Most businesses do have their own private networks that require user sign-on. That’s an easy and correct way to understand what a VPN is. However, private users can also use a VPN. The question is whether it is worth the extra effort.
The Benefits of Using a VPN
A VPN secures user communications in two steps. It creates a secure “tunnel” that sends the message to a private server. That server then sends the message on to its destination. The key fact is that the message looks to observers of online traffic as if it’s coming from the private server, concealing the user’s address.
In understanding VPNs keep in mind that the majority of hackers are not looking at the content of messages. They are trying to steal passwords and internet addresses to gain access to computers.
A VPN makes it more difficult for a hacker to find its way into the user’s computer to set malware and steal data. All the traffic that is visible on the internet is coming from the private VPN server and that’s of no use to hackers. There’s also an interesting contemporary twist. The repeal of Net Neutrality rules makes it possible for Internet Service Providers to collect user traffic data and sell it to third parties. A VPN makes that data useless.
Anyone who objects to tracking in any of its forms may want to consider using a VPN. If you travel frequently or if you use public networks even in the local area, a VPN is a good idea because those networks have a higher probability of being infected with malware. That advice could be broadened to using any networks other than your own.
Are There Drawbacks to Using a VPN?
There can be issues with using a VPN. Some are intended for professionals. As with all internet tools, try a free version first before you decide to pay for a subscription. If it’s hard to use, keep looking until you find one that is easy. VPNs can block users from legitimate sites. I’ve had trouble with local sites because they are unknown to the VPN and may therefore be blocked. Simply turning off the VPN will show whether that is the problem or not. A VPN may slow browsing fractionally, but not enough for most of us to notice. It may, however, significantly impact the speed of streaming services.
VPNs can also be ineffective or unreliable. There are even a few fakes that try to steal data. Sticking to known brands is generally safe. Your password manager or anti-virus software may offer a VPN, so that’s a good, cost-free, place to start. There are, however, good VPNs by developers none of us is likely to have heard of. So, again, the advice that you should always read multiple reviews before deciding on a new tool. Here’s a good article that explains VPNs with graphics and reports on tests for best products.
Are You Safer with a VPN?
There is no question that a VPN adds another layer of protection to your device, whether laptop or mobile. Only trial use will tell you whether it is worth the small amount of extra effort it involves. Like other key tools, the VPN should be pinned to the Start menu so the user signs in at the beginning of each session.
The familiar advice still holds. The antivirus software on your device is always the first line of defense. A Password Manager is a strong second, adding both safety and convenience to your online activities. If you want more protection, a VPN is a good option.