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No Private Wi-Fi, No Worries: How to Use a VPN
Safe internet can still be accessible to you while you’re away from home. Just use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)! With this extension of private internet networks, you can connect your devices to the web without worrying about repercussions from unsafe Wi-Fi.
Table of Contents
- What Is a VPN?
- Why You Might Use a VPN
- Know Your VPN’s Limits
- When to Use Your VPN
- How to Pick a VPN
- How to Set up Your VPN
If you find yourself in a position where you need to access sensitive personal data over an insecure internet connection, your best course of action is to start using a VPN. This post explains what a VPN is, why you might need it and how to get started.
What Is a VPN?
The internet was created primarily to facilitate information exchange—not to protect user privacy. Whenever you enter the online world, there may be multiple points of vulnerability when it comes to your personal data. Even if we don’t consider how some users could be spying on others, internet service providers (ISPs) are allowed to sell anonymized information to advertisers.
Public Wi-Fi networks are typically even less secure. If you find yourself on public networks to do anything personal, be careful with what you do over that connection. When you are pressed to work with private data like banking details, health information or anything that really must remain private, a VPN can help shield your information. VPN services can be used both on and off your home network. No matter what, try to dwell on websites with URLs that begin with HTTPS (the “s” in that part of the URL means “secure”). These URLs are often accompanied by a small icon of a lock immediately preceding the URL in your search bar. Set up a VPN to accompany your safe online practices and to make sure that you’re sharing as little information about yourself as possible.
Why You Might Use a VPN
If you’re doing business while traveling: You may still need to work with sensitive data for your company. You may not want this data exposed on a public network, so a VPN could help you do your job without endangering your employer’s business.
If you need to handle important private information over a public network: Definitely try to use a trusted VPN if you’re in an emergency situation and you need to access financial or health information over a public network. Otherwise, never submit such extremely personal data over a public network.
If you’re traveling out of the country but you need to access content from home: When you’re traveling away from home but still want to access your favorite Netflix shows, you may use a VPN linked to your home country so you can continue to catch up on your shows while on the road.
If you want to hide your browsing information from a public or private ISP: ISPs do see what you do online, and they are authorized by the government to sell that information to advertisers. Although that sold info is supposed to be anonymous, it does still mean that information related to you is going somewhere else. You can use a VPN to regain a bit of privacy.
Know Your VPN’s Limits
What a VPN does:
A VPN is a way to keep your data secure even when you’re using public internet. With a VPN, your internet traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server. This hides your web traffic from your ISP and anyone else connected to the router you’re on. Since you’re using the internet through the VPN server at that provider’s address, your actual IP address is concealed. An IP address can be used to estimate your rough location. So, for example, if you were to connect to a VPN server in Japan, it would look like you were accessing the internet from Japan.
What a VPN does NOT do:
A VPN cannot totally anonymize your online activities. The goal of a VPN is to minimize your data’s exposure. If you are interested in total anonymity, you might look into a service like Tor, which bounces your data through multiple volunteer computers. It is effective in making your data more difficult to track, but it does slow down your web capabilities.
Don’t expect your VPN to work miracles, though. A VPN cannot prevent your browsers and websites from tracking your data through cookies, browser fingerprinting, online trackers and more. To circumvent that, you could use ad-blockers like Privacy Badger or privacy-oriented browsers like Firefox. These additional safeguards can help block the ever-present tracking built into what you already do online.
Additionally, if you’re still putting personal information out onto the internet, it has to go somewhere and an internet service of some kind must carry it. When you’re using a VPN, your information is being handled by that VPN. A quality VPN service will do everything in its power to retain as little information about you as possible, so you should take care to select a VPN that you trust. If you have even one doubt about it, go ahead and switch to a provider you feel more comfortable with.
A VPN doesn’t protect against everything. Use reasonable safety practices and standalone anti-virus software to prevent malware from taking over your device. You can also see our related articles on how to increase your online safety and how to protect yourself from phishing attacks.
|What a VPN CAN Do:||What a VPN CANNOT Do:|
|Minimize data exposure when you access the internet||Eliminate all tracking on the internet|
|Encrypt your data so that digital onlookers can’t make use of it||Prevent the invasion of malware|
When to Use Your VPN
Ideally, all the time. Remember what we said earlier about your ISP being legally allowed to sell anonymous data to advertising companies? It’s not a bad idea to use a VPN even if you’re at home. Since that’s not always possible, though, at least reserve VPN use for when you’re on a public network. You can also find a VPN that work for cellular devices, but be aware that it still has the potential to slow down service a bit when your phone moves between data carriers.
How to Pick a VPN
Do your research: look for reviews in reputable places, read what that service does/does not track. Again, although your VPN should not do anything with the data you transfer while using it, we advise making sure that you select a service that promotes your privacy instead of compromising it. Therefore, although a free VPN is appealing, you should make sure that this service is not still obtaining their funds at the cost of your privacy and data.
|CyberGhost VPN||Paid Only|
|Hotspot Shield||Free or Paid|
|Private Internet Access VPN||Paid Only|
|ProtonVPN||Free or Paid|
|Surfshark VPN||Paid Only|
|TunnelBear||Free or Paid|
How to Set up Your VPN
- Sign up for your account and make your first payment if you’re using a paid service.
- Download the relevant software from your new VPN service onto your device.
- Open the new VPN software from your computer menu or smartphone/tablet app.
- Under your device’s settings, add your VPN provider to your computer’s list of trusted VPN services.
- Follow your service’s instructions for using the VPN from there.
Frequently asked questions
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a way to keep your data secure even when you're using public internet. With a VPN, your internet traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server. This hides your web traffic from your ISP and anyone else connected to the router you’re on.
What is data encryption?
Encryption is the process of scrambling your data into a set of seemingly unintelligible data. VPNs and online security systems typically have this feature to help protect your data by presenting digital intruders with a mess of information instead of letting them see your personal data.
What is an IP address?
An Internet Protocol (IP) address is an identification number for every device connected to the internet. It can provide information like the location of your router.
What devices can have a VPN?
Many internet-enabled devices can use a VPN. These include computers, smartphones and tablets.
What does a VPN protect its user from?
It can minimize data exposure over the internet. It does not, however, erase personal data or traffic completely, and it does not protect against viruses or other malware.
Written by Sarah Solomon
Edited by Henry St. Pierre