TL/DR: VPNs are an essential and basic tool to help protect your privacy.
Think about all those times you were studying or traveling, hopping onto that oh-so free and sweet Wi-Fi internet hotspot at McDonalds, Starbucks, the airport, your hotel, or one of those ubiquitous “xfinitywifi” or “attwifi” ones. Now imagine if one of those hotspots was tampered with, allowing someone the ability to intercept your device’s activity and sensitive data. Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), you will be protected from this scenario, as a VPN makes it nearly impossible for someone to eavesdrop on or intercept your activity.
This data privacy protection also extends to those prying Third Parties eyes… *cough* Internet Service Providers *ahem* 3 letter agencies *cough* phone carriers.
So what is a VPN, ELI5? You can think of NOT using VPN versus using a VPN like the difference between sending a postcard versus sending a letter. If you are NOT using a VPN, it is like sending a postcard with a return address marked as your home address; everything that is written on it is available to be read by the channels it passes through (e.g. your mail delivery person). If you are using a VPN, it’s like hand delivering a letter to a trusted mail delivery service. The trusted mailing service will do two things before it’s actually mailed. Firstly, they will translate your letter into an invented language only understood by the recipient of that letter. Secondly, they will mark the envelope with a return address different from your own. At that point, any party can view the letter’s contents, but that party is unable to read or understand the contents of that letter or trace it back to you.
What other value will you get from using a VPN?
Beyond protecting your privacy and data, there are a lot of other reasons why you should use one:
A VPN can unlock services or content. These can be inaccessible due to geo-restrictions. Workplaces and universities are notorious for blocking certain websites such as social media services. It’s also like doing “up, up, down, down, left right, left right, B, A, Start” for all those streaming services you’re already subscribed to.
A VPN can act as an Ad-blocker. No more ads attempting to install malicious trackers or malware on your device.
A VPN can get you cheaper flight or hotel Prices. Did you know flight and hotel prices can differ in cost depending on the location you’re searching from? And even change prices if you did not pull the trigger when first browsing your destination location? Sneaky sneaky dynamic pricing…
A VPN can help you stream that not-so-local sporting event. Rooting for your home team can be difficult when you’re in fact, not at home. Lots of websites provide broadcasting of that local sport but are restricted by location.
What a VPN will NOT do
While listing out some of the amazing things VPNs can do, it’s important to highlight what they cannot do. VPNs are only a small part of a complete privacy-driven ecosystem.
A VPN will NOT protect you against yourself. There are places where you provide sensitive data willingly or unknowingly, otherwise known as phishing or social engineering; that data that can easily identify and deanonymize you. Using your social media accounts while logged into your VPN account can also deanonymize you.
A VPN will NOT protect you from device fingerprinting. Although your VPN will protect your real IP address from being exposed, this is only a small part of your device fingerprint. Your MAC address, typing speed, device size, screen resolution, browser type, installed browser plugins, website cookies, OS type, etc., are still able to be captured and can be used to identify and deanonymize you. Note that your ISP can identify what VPN service you are using because of the IP address ranges utilized by the VPN provider.
A VPN will NOT protect against illegal activity. In most cases, VPNs themselves are legal to use, but illegal activity can still be traced by other means.
Which VPN should I use?
There are hundreds of VPN services available, so which VPN should you use for privacy? We believe it is necessary to choose a VPN provider with the following minimum criteria:
A VPN whose services are located outside of the 5, 9, or 14 Eyes. I mean, what is the point of a VPN if your data can be monitored by local intelligence agencies or if your data is mandated to be retained, enabling the ability for that data to be extracted by means of a simple gag order anyway?
A VPN that does not track, collect, or sell your private data. By using a VPN, you are essentially shifting your trust from something like your ISP to your VPN provider. Why would a VPN need or want to collect your data? Probably because it’s free, cheap, and is selling or learning from that data.
A VPN that provides adequate device and country coverage. I personally own and use Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, ChromeOS, FireOS and even Tizen devices daily. Just make sure your devices are supported… although if you’re using a Tizen device, most likely your TV, then you are currently SOL. If the VPN does not have large area coverage, you might not get that new content you are looking for from that streaming service, or worse yet, your internet speed may suffer.
A VPN that passes its privacy and security audits. Audits keep these companies secure, honest, and ethical. No logging. No retention of data. No known security holes or leaks that will compromise you and the traffic going through their tunnels. It’s also probably best that the audit is also done by an unassociated third party.
However, don’t expect smooth sailing all the time when connected to a VPN service as address spaces are constantly getting flagged on a service by service basis. I’ve personally had issues such as Google Search requiring a captcha because of detecting “usual traffic”, my Pokémon Go game having a hard time logging in, Nike’s SNKRS app not working at all, and streaming services being prone to temporary VPN blocking. Usually restarting the VPN or switching servers fixes the issue.
A VPN adds a crucial layer of privacy protection complimenting what https provides. They are a small but essential part of a privacy driven ecosystem.
Principal Software Engineer
OSOM Products Inc.
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