Understanding and Using
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
Any search for internet privacy and security tips will almost certainly turn up a mention of virtual private networks (VPNs). They are one of the key tools—and many people’s go-to—for private and secure internet browsing. However, what are they, and how do they work? Perhaps more importantly, why would you need or want to use one, and are there any drawbacks to doing so?
This page provides some essential information to help you to understand more about VPNs, and when and why you might choose to use one. It also explains both the benefits and the limitations of the technology.
What is a VPN?
A VPN creates an encrypted link between your computer and a remote server that is run by the VPN provider. All your internet data is then routed down this link before being sent to the internet as usual.
What this basically means is that nobody can see where you are, because your internet traffic is all being routed via the VPN server instead of your ISP.
In other words, it hides your IP address from anyone who might be looking—such as governments, businesses, or potential hackers. It is therefore a very useful security tool, but also offers some other useful benefits linked to being able to change location.
A VPN circumvents your internet service provider (ISP), so it will seem like you are coming from a different IP address. It doesn’t actually change your IP address, just hides it effectively.
This allows you to change your location online—that is, it can make it look like you are somewhere that you are not. It also masks your IP address from businesses, governments and potential hackers.
When people talk about VPNs, they usually mean those that are commercially available on subscription, such as Surfshark, NordVPN or Express VPN. You can buy these as plans on a monthly or yearly basis, and for varying numbers of devices. These are generally the choice for individuals for use at home.
However, companies and organisations also use VPNs, often their own, to enable employees to work remotely in a secure environment.
Uses for VPNs
There are several reasons why you might want to use a VPN, or occasions when it may be useful to do so. These include:
When you are using a public WiFi network, such as in a café, or on public transport.
Public WiFi is much less secure than private networks. Using a VPN can hide your browsing history, and also ensure that nobody can access secure information like your banking passwords.
To keep your browsing history secret from your internet service provider (ISP)
When you browse the internet via the connection provided by your ISP, you leave a trail that your ISP can see. It can therefore obtain information about where, when and how you browse the internet: the sites you visit, how often you visit, and how long you stay.
Your ISP can use this information itself, but it can also gather this information and sell it on.
This matters because it may contain personally identifiable information, and you may therefore be more vulnerable to data breaches. Using a VPN will ensure that your ISP cannot gather this information, and therefore cannot sell it on.
To keep your browsing history and data safe from other apps and services
Your ISP is not the only business that is interested in gathering data from you and using it for commercial purposes.
Many social media sites do the same. As we should all know by now, if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer—and for social media, that means you’re actually the product. A VPN can prevent these sites and apps from gathering and using your data.
To prevent government surveillance of your activity
Those who live in totalitarian regimes are familiar with the idea that governments might be interested in their browsing habits.
However, it may come as news to many that more liberal governments are also quite interested in these issues.
Using a VPN does not provide total protection, but it does mean that your ISP does not have your browsing history to share with any government agencies on demand.
To access content or prices only available in other locations
We often think of the internet as being supra-national: beyond nations. However, not all internet content is available to all internet users.
Some services are only available in some countries. Some companies also offer differential pricing to users in different locations. Using a VPN can help you get round this restriction by making it look as though you are elsewhere. Interestingly, this use may sound ethically suspect, but it is actually not illegal in the US or many other countries.
When you are working remotely
Remote working can include working from home as well as on public WiFi networks. VPNs can help to keep data secure from any location because of the encryption that they offer.
They are therefore popular with companies that have a lot of remote employees or contractors.
VPNs are also helpful if you are travelling to an area where access to some internet sites is restricted. Most of the time this won’t be a problem, but you may need to access work-related sites, or social media sites that are restricted. By ‘spoofing’ your location, VPNs can make it seem that you are elsewhere, and therefore give you access to content that would not otherwise be available in your location. Similarly, a VPN can make it seem as though you are at home, even when you are travelling, which may make internet banking easier.
VPNs and the law
It is important to be aware that VPNs are not legal everywhere. Some governments, including China, Russia and North Korea, restrict or ban the use of VPNs.
Before you use one, you should check legal restrictions in your location. VPNs can make it look like you are somewhere else, but cannot completely hide you.
You should also bear in mind that anything that is illegal without a VPN is also illegal with it!
Limitations of VPNs
It is important to be aware that VPNs are not infallible.
If you post to a social media site, log into your Google account, or send an email from your primary email account, your identity will be exposed even if you are using a VPN. VPNs also do not prevent cookies, so companies can still follow you once you visit a site.
You should also be aware that free VPNs may be less secure than subscription services, if only because of the adverts that they use to fund their services.
The bottom line is that VPNs should not be the only tool in your privacy and security toolbox. You need the right tool for the right job—and combining options is usually the best way to increase your security.
About the Author
Melissa has been writing content for SkillsYouNeed since 2013. She holds an MBA and previously worked as a civil servant and. Now with a young family, she is learning all about applying her skills to real life.