The rise in the number of data breaches reported has become a major concern – even to the ordinary internet user. As a result, we have all become aware of the need to maintain privacy while online. One of the measures promising to keep you safe on the internet is the use of a virtual private network (VPN). But before rushing to install one of the many VPNs available, it’s important to understand what a VPN is, why you need it, if it is foolproof and what other options you have for staying safe on the internet.
What is a VPN?
A VPN service lets you browse the internet privately by masking your IP address – the unique address identifying your device on the web. It also encrypts your internet traffic as it passes through a secure tunnel created from your device to a remote server. Your data appears to be coming from the remote server. This means that a VPN can hide your geographical location, personal data, web browsing history, spending habits and mobile phone activities.
Initially, VPNs were built for business environments to help a business operate a secure network connection. But with today’s cyber security concerns, they have become popular and more widespread.
Why Would You Need to Use a VPN?
There are numerous reasons why a person would need to enlist the services of a VPN company. Here are some situations that require the use of a VPN:
- Since Congress cleared the way for ISPs to sell users’ browsing history without their consent, privacy is a thing of the past. This means that an internet service provider can sell your browsing data to third parties. A VPN can mask your IP address from your service provider.
- The encryption offered by VPNs guards against digital threats, hacking, malware attacks and identify theft.
- VPNs help keep hackers and marketers from tracking your movement online.
- If you travel to a country where you can’t access some sites, for instance in China where Facebook is not allowed, a VPN will help you stay in touch on any of these blocked sites.
- When using public Wi-Fi in airports or any other place that offers free Wi-Fi, a VPN comes in handy.
- Employers who have workers going out for field work or working remotely can set up a VPN to help access company networks securely.
- Used by whistleblowers, law enforcement agencies, investigative journalists and others who want to shield their identities or location.
- For user with Voice over IP (VOIP) for making calls, a VPN will help prevent your phone conversations from being tracked or intercepted.
- When you need to visit questionable websites but want to be safe. For instance, when your identity is stolen and you want to find the website selling your data.
The Bad Side of Using a VPN
Although a VPN service may sound perfect for internet security, it also has some disadvantages. Keep in mind that your internet service provider may no longer have your data, but the VPN provider now has access to it.
A VPN is not 100 percent guaranteed. The VPN provider could be disconnected or there could be a Domain Name Server (DNS) leak. Even with advanced features such as kill switch, VPN data can still leak through software, hardware or other means.
If you fail to use the right VPN, you’ll be in more problems than you are running from. Some VPNs (especially the free services) keep log files. There is no telling where your private data will end up. They could end up selling your data to third parties or supplying your information to the government.
These services also slow down your internet access speed due to the process of data encryption and tunneling network traffic to a remote server that is used to connect you to the internet.
A VPN doesn’t protect you from viruses and malware.
Other Security Measures
Since a VPN is not foolproof, it is important that you also observe other security measures to protect your privacy.
It is crucial that you practice digital privacy hygiene. In other words, when online you should limit the amount of personal information that you share. This will help minimize your digital footprint.
Investing in quality antivirus software will protect your device from malware and viruses.
Regularly check if your data has been compromised. Check for strange activity in your emails, social media accounts and even in your bank account.
Use strong passwords or other security features such as biometrics to secure your accounts.
You may come across many different types of products and services that promise to keep you safe on the internet. The bottom line is, it’s up to you to protect yourself. A combination of several security measures is a good starting point – the use of a VPN, strong passwords and antivirus programs.