One thing about connected life is certain: everyone is trying to spy on us. I don't just mean malicious hackers, scammers, WiFi snoopers, account hijackers and wankers in trench coats. The main culprits are companies snatching our private data and advertisers following us around like mouth-breathing Peeping Toms.
It feels like an uphill battle, which is why many people end up taking terrible risks with their security and privacy. The bigger problem is that any risks we take extend to our friends and family. So when we do the computer security equivalent of peeing into the wind, there's a whole bunch of people in our address books and contacts who have no idea they need an umbrella.
So whether you're online on your phone, tablet or desktop — stop doing that! It's gross. Plus, you also don't need to be connected all buck naked like that. Cover your assets, and use a nifty little tool known as a VPN.
A VPN, or virtual private network, keeps your computer's IP address — and your physical location — private. More and more, people are using a VPN to create a private path for their computers and mobile devices to use when they access the internet. It's a great way to keep your browsing private and attack-proof.
When you use a VPN, your data is safely encrypted while it travels wherever it needs to go. That means your data is protected when it goes from you to the VPN server, and then to your final destination (a website, or the server of whichever app you're using). This way, websites — and anyone else, like advertisers or attackers — only see the VPN's IP address and not yours. In addition, your ISP (internet service provider, like AT&T and Comcast) only sees you visiting the VPN and doesn't get to tag along and spy on where you go or what you do.
A VPN is essential for personal security and privacy when you:
Use public WiFi
Are on someone else’s network or tether
Work from home and have to use apps without end-to-end encryption (like Facebook Rooms)
Need to do a transaction on a site using “HTTP” instead of “HTTPS”
Want more privacy when visiting websites
You should never use public WiFi, or someone else's WiFi, without one. Why? A VPN protects your data, including instant messages, e-mails, downloads, uploads, login information, which sites you visit, which apps you use and even your physical location. A VPN is also a handy way to protect your identity if you want to leave a comment or browse secretly without the website you're visiting knowing your location.
A good VPN encrypts your internet traffic, preventing people from intercepting your connection. Though if a VPN offers "military grade" encryption, be suspicious: This is a BS marketing claim. Many companies use the same encryption standards as the US government, so pretty much anyone can make the "military grade" claim, and it does not mean they have the same security protections as the military.
Now that everyone’s working from home, adding VPN use into our security routines is more than just a good idea. A VPN is a terrific layer of security to add to video calls, especially on apps that don’t have end-to-end encryption, like Facebook (Messenger) Rooms, Houseparty, Discord, and BlueJeans.
Oh, and in case you're wondering — yes, they're perfectly legal and actually pretty normal for business use. In companies, VPNs are typically used to connect employees who aren't at the workplace to a computer at work. They connect remote employees to central work servers.
Many companies have VPNs so workers can access files and other resources safely over the internet when they're not in the office. However, VPNs are currently restricted in some countries, like the United Arab Emirates, Russia and China.
Outside of company use, VPNs are being used more and more by people who just want to make their internet use more secure from attackers or nosy, data-snarfling companies. VPN use moved even closer to the mainstream in March 2017, when the current administration and FCC came together to remove consumer privacy protections from ISPs. These changes made ISPs free to track you and sell your data to third parties — and ushered in a boom in VPN use and awareness.
What VPNs protect you from:
ISPs tracking you and selling the data they collect on your internet activity
Website advertisers spying on you (use a good ad blocker, too)
Hackers on public WiFi
Apps and companies spying on your connection
Blanket surveillance and internet communication interception
Anyone who wants to identify your IP address or location
Companies and apps that want your connection data
Creeps trying to intercept your connection
What VPN’s don’t protect you from:
They don’t stop malware or ransomware; a VPN only protects your data, not your devices
It does not make you 100% anonymous online
It won’t speed up your connection
It won’t keep people from knowing you’re using a VPN
VPNs won’t bypass VPN blocks; if a bank or public wifi bans VPN traffic, you’re out of luck
It won’t (generally) let you watch Netflix from another country
Keep you safe when the VPN you’re using has bad data or security practices
How to pick a safe VPN
Not just any old VPN will do for your cell phone, tablet, or desktop. It’s critical to select a safe, reliable, and secure VPN. There are plenty of shady VPN apps out there that want to cash in on everyone’s surveillance and privacy fears — VPNs that promise to protect your privacy but are actually worthless. Then there are VPNs that come from seemingly reputable companies that end up being misconfigured (on their side). Some bad VPNs will actually grab your data and sell it, or they’ll avoid accountability for any bad practices they get caught doing. Like lying about their server locations.
So how do you pick out a good one? Lucky for us, there are a lot of VPN nerds out there that have done a ton of the legwork when it comes to evaluating safety, security, and best practices. One VPN evaluation resource we strongly recommend is Restore Privacy; they keep a current list of the best. If you want to get down and nerdy about it, a very thorough chart of VPN comparisons can be found at That One Privacy Site. Another good spot to use for VPN research is TorrentFreak's yearly "Which VPN Services Keep You Anonymous?" post.
Generally, you’ll want to avoid the free ones — this is a typical indicator of something shady being afoot. The exception to the “always pay for your security products” rule here, however, is that your home internet service provider might offer a really safe one for free. For instance, California-based ISP Sonic offers all its customers a free OpenVPN app as does security service Cloudflare.
In general, what you want to look for is a VPN with a good reputation: Use Google, and see if any issues come up in searches. You'll want to look for ones that don't have known data leaks, have good performance, feature quality apps for all your devices, that support the OpenVPN protocol and encryption standards, and ideally have a money-back guarantee.
If I had to pick just two, I’d go with Perfect Privacy and Tunnelbear, no question about it. Perfect Privacy has an incredible number of features, but I love that they keep no logs, you can choose from fast VPN servers all over the world, it’s easy to use while also having advanced configuration options, and I think they have the best security reputation over all other VPN companies. Tunnelbear has a similarly stellar reputation and is incredibly easy to use, great for when you want top-shelf security and don’t need to get crazy with configuring your connections.
How to use a VPN
Once you’ve settled on the right VPN for you, follow any setup instructions (they're minimal, if any), click to turn it on, and forget about it while you safely use the internet. Many VPNs have the option of a login and password when you turn it on, if you want that extra layer of security. Some VPNs give users a selection at startup, in which you can choose the physical location of the server you use for connecting to the internet. So if you want websites to think you're in a different city or country, that's a pretty typical option you can expect to encounter.
Once downloaded, a VPN is simple to use: Just turn it on before you go online (before you open your email, open a browser window, and so on), and you're all set. In a public WiFi environment like a café or airport, you'll need to log in to the WiFi first and then open your VPN before making another move.
And that's it! Go get a VPN, install it on your devices, use it whenever you're out and about (or even when you're home), and Bob's your uncle! Okay, I don't actually know what that saying means. But I do know my way around privacy and security, and I hope you don't wait to get going with a VPN. It may not feel like it nowadays, but your data is still yours, and it's very much worth protecting.