A virtual private network, or VPN for short, is a network that hides your internet traffic using encryption. You’re probably aware of some of the benefits a VPN provides, but should you use a VPN all of the time?
A VPN Provides Privacy
A VPN hides your real IP address, which is your internet connection’s front door. This is particularly useful if you have a static IP that doesn’t rotate, since advertisers and other trackers can use your IP to link your online activity.
This can be used to serve targeted adverts in a somewhat scattershot fashion. For example, say that you’re shopping around for power tools online. You might search for items, check retailers, and maybe watch a YouTube video or two. With your IP address exposed, advertisers can easily serve you more ads for power tools by targeting the address.
This could result in a breach of privacy by exposing other members of your household to advertisements that are triggered by your browsing activity. This is just one of the tricks that advertisers use to track users in a bid to serve relevant advertisements that are more likely to be clicked.
Much of the time, disconnecting from your VPN and reconnecting will provide you with a new IP address. Even if your internet package provides you with an ever-changing dynamic IP, your browsing activity could still be linked back to you, since your service provider will have a record. A good VPN won’t keep logs long enough for this to be an issue.
Your Internet Traffic Is Encrypted
A VPN acts as a secure tunnel through which your internet traffic is funneled. Traffic is encrypted on both ends so that, in theory, only you and the endpoint (the website that you’re accessing) know what’s being transmitted.
This level of protection can vary depending on which protocols the VPN provider supports as well as which protocol you choose to use. Generally speaking, more secure protocols are slower. Faster, less secure protocols are better than nothing.
Encryption of this nature is particularly useful when using public wireless networks. These networks can be used to launch man-in-the-middle attacks, where browsing data is intercepted. If that traffic is encrypted, it will likely not be of any use to anyone conducting such an attack. Stronger encryption protocols afford more protection in this regard.
Nothing is ever “hack-proof,” and it’s important to never assume that you’re fully protected. Even so, a VPN provides an extra level of security on top of existing encryption (like HTTPS and TLS, used by web hosts and email providers).
Hide Your Activity from Your ISP or Government
When you encrypt your web traffic, you make it difficult for any third parties to see what you’re doing online. This includes the types of websites that you’re visiting or the services that you’re using.
Internet service providers (ISPs) might attempt to “shape” traffic by throttling particular domains or traffic patterns. For example, BitTorrent traffic or high-bandwidth streaming services could be artificially slowed down.
If you’re using a VPN, then all of your traffic is encrypted. This makes it difficult for ISPs to know exactly what you’re using your internet connection for, and virtually impossible for them to throttle or shape your internet traffic because it’s hidden behind a layer of encryption.
The same can be said of file sharing and other legally gray practices. Many VPNs have servers located in jurisdictions that take a softer approach to the issue, where filesharing is allowed. Just make sure that you don’t violate any policies that could see your VPN terminate your account for misuse.
On a far more serious note, VPNs can also be used to circumvent censorship or hide from authorities. In some countries, the use of a VPN is illegal. If you want to use a VPN to hide from authorities in such a way, make sure that you understand the risks of doing so. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the concept of a kill switch, which protocols will best protect you, and the best software that you have available to establish a VPN connection.
Save Money and Access Region-Locked Content, Too
For most users, a VPN is first and foremost an investment in security and privacy for the reasons laid out above. Being able to appear as if you’re browsing the internet in another country has a few other benefits, too, particularly when it comes to retail and streaming content.
You might be charged less for a particular product or service if you appear to be in a different country. The most obvious example is flights, where the price can change dramatically depending on where you book. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the travel itinerary, either (Your departure destination doesn’t necessarily need to match the location in which the booking was made.).
Another major reason that many people sign up for a VPN in the first place is to stream geo-restricted content. This could be another country’s Netflix catalog, streaming TV services, or even live events like sports that might not be available locally.
If you’re going the streaming route, be prepared to shop around. Streaming services like Netflix are more aware than ever of the tricks that VPN providers use to circumvent geographical restrictions. Some services might have specific servers that you should connect to in order to access streaming video.
What Are the Drawbacks of a VPN?
One major drawback to using a VPN is that they slow down your internet speed. Since the use of a VPN introduces an additional layer between you and the wider internet, your speed will be slower if you browse via a VPN. There are more hoops for data to jump through before reaching you with a VPN.
The speed issue largely depends on the speed of your home internet and the distance between you and the VPN server that you’re using. A server located a few miles away will introduce little slowdown, but a server on the other side of the world might have a dramatic impact. And yes, this can affect streaming performance.
This can make the use of a VPN undesirable for low-latency applications, like playing online games or hosting video streams.
The second major drawback is the perception that a VPN affords you full protection against online threats. This is not the case. Remember that a VPN can’t protect you against the usual online threats of malware, scammers, zero-day exploits, and identity theft. And unless you change your online habits to boost your privacy, you could still be easy to identify.
Furthermore, a VPN can itself be compromised. In 2019, for example, the information emerged that one of the world’s largest VPN providers, NordVPN, was hit by a security breach at a data center in Finland. The affected server was vulnerable between January 31 and March 5 in 2018, but the company claims to have not been notified for a year that the breach had occurred.
NordVPN waited another six months before notifying customers of the breach. It cut ties with the company that managed the server and reassured customers that no logs, usernames, or passwords were revealed, but the breach still raised eyebrows, particularly from affected users connecting from Finland.
Lastly, there’s the cost to consider. Free VPNs aren’t an option for anyone who takes online security seriously, so for real online protection, you’ll need to pay a small monthly fee.
Picking the Right VPN
Picking the right VPN is important. You should avoid free VPNs since they’re often the targets of attacks and offer little to no protection. The good news is that most VPNs are affordable at only a few dollars per month.
If you’re concerned about your online activities being exposed, make sure that you pick a VPN with a minimal logging policy. This means that the VPN retains logs of what its users are doing for a very short period. Ideally, this service should exist outside of your jurisdiction and outside of intelligence-sharing jurisdictions like the Five Eyes.
Learning about the various VPN protocols available to you will give you a better understanding of what level of protection a particular service affords you. While this can be off-putting, our guide to the different VPN protocols should point you in the right direction.
So Should You Use a VPN for All Web Browsing?
If you’re paying for a VPN that you’re happy with, that affords you a sufficient layer of security, and that allows you to access services that you might otherwise not have available to you, then you should use it as much as possible.
It might make more sense to isolate the few online activities for which a VPN is unsuitable, like playing online games or getting (legal) downloads completed as fast as possible. You can always disconnect and use the web “nude” for any such activities.
If you’d rather use your VPN for absolutely everything on all of your devices, you can set up a VPN on some routers.