What is a VPN and do I need one?

How to decide if you need a VPN, and find the right VPN for you.

Keeping your data safe online requires a little work.
Edmund Coby

Don't Sell My Data campaign intern

Whenever you go online, your computer, phone or other device is transmitting data about you to your internet provider. Unfortunately, internet providers often sell or share your data with other companies ranging from advertisers to car dealerships to data brokers. This means information like what you search for online, your browsing history and your location data can end up with lots of third parties. This much data collection puts you at risk of breaches and hacks that make you more vulnerable to identity theft, scams and fraud. That’s where VPNs can come in.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using a VPN can help protect your information online by encrypting your data about what you do online and transmitting it through the VPN company’s own servers, instead of through your internet provider. This means your internet provider can’t see what you do online and can’t sell your data to third parties. It also means your data is more protected from hackers looking to intercept your data online. 

What are the downsides of VPNs?

While VPNs can provide useful protections for your data, but they may not be for everyone.

  • VPNs cost money. Most recommended VPNs come at a monthly subscription cost.
  • VPNs often slow down your internet. Using a VPN may mean your download speed slows due to the process of encrypting your data. Measured in megabits per second (Mbps), this affects how quickly you can access content such as web pages, files, videos, and more. Connecting to a VPN can reduce your internet speed by up to 50%, though some services offer lower disruption rates. 
  • VPN protections can vary by location. Depending on where your VPN company has its servers, your data may have varying legal protections. Some countries – such as the U.S. and U.K. – also require VPN companies to hand over user data as a part of government investigations, which some may find unsettling.
  • Even VPN companies aren’t 100% safe from hackers. In today’s age of cybersecurity incidents, there’s no such thing as a perfectly immune company. In 2019, NordVPN confirmed it had suffered a security breach and an attacker had access to a data center in Finland for over a year, potentially exposing and gaining access to customer data.

Should I get a VPN?

There are a few reasons you might want to get a VPN.

  • Increased security. Using a VPN safeguards your device’s data by creating an encrypted tunnel between your devices and the VPN servers, thwarting access attempts by bad actors such as hackers and making your information more secure.
  • Increased privacy. Using a VPN replaces your unique IP address with a “masked” IP address, eliminating ‘IP Targeting’ as a means for websites and advertisers to snoop on your online activities.
  • Bypass geo-restrictions of online content. Users in some countries may experience trouble accessing some online services. For example, Netflix didn’t offer an Australian service until 2015, reportedly adding the service because of the high number of Aussies using VPNs based in America to access its streaming platform.

What to look for in a VPN

Outside of price there are a number of other factors when choosing the best VPN for your needs. Balancing considerations of security, performance and privacy can be complex. Let’s look at some of the most important metrics.

You should be able to find all of these answers easily on the VPN company’s website.

Performance and reliability

  • Device compatibility. VPN apps may be compatible with only certain types of devices such as computers, smartphones, tablets, routers or gaming consoles. Compatibility may also vary by operating systems, such as iOS, Android and Linux. Make sure you can use your VPN with the devices in your life. 
  • Number of devices. Check what the maximum number of devices is that can simultaneously connect to the VPN service using a single subscription. Having a higher allowance for simultaneous connections allows you to protect multiple devices under one account, saving you money and hassle. 
  • Download speeds. As we mentioned above, using a VPN may slow down your internet anywhere from 10% – 50%. There are steps you can take to minimize disruptions, like selecting a VPN with servers that are closer to your physical location. 
  • Number of servers and their locations. Picking a VPN with server locations near you can minimize disruptions to your internet speed. So too can picking one with 100 or more servers, which can help with reliability if one server is processing a lot of encryption requests at any one time.
  • Customer support. Check what  times and channels of assistance a VPN provider offers to its users, including live chat, email, or phone support for addressing technical or account-related issues. An option with the broadest time windows may prove helpful. 

Security features

  • Encryption protocols. Encryption Protocols protect your online activity by using a mathematical algorithm cipher to jumble your plaintext (information that would be readable to anyone who intercepted it) into ciphertext (information that requires knowing the code to be able to read). Different brands of VPN providers each use different protocols each with their strengths and weaknesses. Some protocols may be more secure but slow the speed of your connection or vice versa. You can learn more about the different types of protocols here.
  • Kill switch. A VPN kill switch is a safety feature that automatically cuts off your internet connection if your VPN connection drops unexpectedly. This prevents your sensitive data from being exposed to potential threats if you’re online and your VPN falters. (If this happens, it’s possible to pause your VPN and keep your internet connection if it happens at a moment when you really need internet.)

Privacy and terms

  • No-logs policy. A “no-logs policy” is a commitment made by VPN providers to not record or store any of your online activities. They claim they do not track your browsing history, connection timestamps, or any other data that could potentially identify you. This is a key feature for protecting your privacy and ensuring your information doesn’t end up with advertisers or data brokers.
  • Terms and conditions. Like with any subscription or service, it’s important to be aware of hidden policies in the Terms and Conditions. Check if there are any renewal terms, such as price increases after the first year. Additionally, verify whether the subscription is intended for personal-use only or if it allows for business use. Understanding these details upfront can help you make informed decisions about the VPN service and avoid unexpected issues down the line.

Edmund Coby

Don't Sell My Data campaign intern

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