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A virtual private network (VPN) is a technology that improves your online security and privacy. When using a commercial VPN service, you connect to a server run by a VPN provider via an encrypted connection. In other words, all data transferred between your computer and the VPN server is scrambled so that no one else can read it.
This setup has a number of important consequences that result in greatly improved Internet security.
Because your data is encrypted, all activity is hidden from your Internet service provider (ISP). Note that your VPN provider can view your Internet activity, so VPNs should always be seen as providing protection for your personal information, not anonymity.
Additionally, because your data is encrypted, using a VPN will prevent many forms of Man in the Middle (MitM) attack, in which adversaries attempt to intercept your data en route. This is particularly true when using public Wi-Fi hotspots, which present a major danger to Internet users. Using a VPN, your information is encrypted, so even if you connect to an “evil twin” hotspot (it is easy for a hacker to setup a bogus hotspot labelled “Free Airport WiFi”) or your information is intercepted using a Wi-Fi packet sniffer (Wi-Fi is just radio waves after all), your data will be safe.
Your IP address is hidden from the Internet because the VPN server acts as a proxy (an intermediary between your computer and the Internet). Therefore, malicious websites and suchlike can only log the IP address of your VPN server, not your real IP address (the unique number that identifies every connected device). In addition to helping you protect your personal information online, this makes it much more difficult for adversaries to target attacks against you. Unfortunately, using a VPN is very much a partial solution here, as websites use all sorts of sneaky methods to track and uniquely identify visitors – zombie cookies, browser fingerprinting and more.
Against such attacks a VPN should be regarded as a valuable component in a toolkit that also includes browser-based add-ons such as script blockers, anti-tracking tools and advanced cookie managers.
The only real downside to using a VPN is that it may slow down your Internet connection slightly, due to both the additional processing power required to encrypt and decrypt data and the routing of data through a third party server that adds a “leg” to its journey. Typically, however, these speed hits are not noticeable. VPNs can range from free to about $10 per month, depending on data limits and session times.
When it comes to Internet security and privacy, there are no easy “one-click” solutions. Using a VPN, however, is arguably one of the key ways to better protect yourself while online.
About the Author
Douglas Crawford is a security researcher at BestVPN.
*Please note that this post concerns the use of commercial VPN services to improve the online privacy and security of individual Internet users, not corporate VPN networks. Although both types of networks share a name and core concepts, corporate VPNs are designed to allow remote workers to connect securely to company servers and are very different than the kind of VPN setup described here.