What is a VPN?

You’ve probably heard of a VPN – Virtual Private Network – but the chances are, you’re not using one.

It seems like a hassle to set one up or find the “best” one, whatever that happens to mean.

In this day and age of cyber crime, identity theft, and fraud, it’s too risky not to use a VPN every time you connect to the internet, especially when traveling or using the public network. Here, you’ll learn what exactly a VPN is, why you need to use it, and what qualities to look for in a good VPN.

What is a VPN?

VPN is a virtual version of a physical network that’s secure. It’s a private data network that is basically a group of linked computers to share files and other resources. For individuals, it’s a method of encrypting your files and communications over the web when you’re on an untrusted network, such as public Wi-Fi. Businesses use VPNs to boost their security and connect to resources they can’t access physically, such as remote data centers.

If you’re interested in the true inner workings of a VPN, you can check out this article on How Stuff Works.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

There are at least four reasons you’d want to use a VPN, whether you’re a business or an individual.

Reason One: You want your company and employees to be able to access the printer, files, applications, and other resources on the office network without compromising security. If you work remotely, it’s highly likely your company has provided you with free VPN access.

Reason Two: You’re deeply concerned about your online privacy because you use your computer or phone to do everything, especially banking and other financial activities. If you’re on a public or untrusted network at places like Starbucks, a library, an airport, or a hotel, it only takes one person who was hacked in the same network you’re on to open the backdoor to security threats. VPN encrypts your passwords, files, and internet traffic so others can’t “eavesdrop” into what you’re doing.

Reason Three: You want to circumvent what’s known as “geoblocking.” If you’ve ever traveled overseas and tried to watch Netflix, you know what this is about; you get something like “Sorry, this video can only be watched from the United States.” What if you want to watch the Olympics as they happen, instead of watching reruns? With a VPN, you can get around this geographical restriction.

Reason Four: If you like to download content from torrent sites like BitTorrent, you absolutely want to stay anonymous so people can’t spy on what you’re downloading. VPN lets you do that.

Think privacy, encryption, and anonymity with VPN.

What Makes a Good VPN?

There is a dizzying array of options when it comes to choosing a VPN. It’s important to know that a good one is rarely free. Here are the features to consider when evaluating a VPN:

Protocol: You only have to worry about the four most popular ones: Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). If this is entirely unfamiliar to you, you’ve probably heard of SSL at the least.

PPTP is the least secure although it is a good starting point because almost every OS supports it whether it’s Mac, Windows, or mobile.

L2TP and IPSec are more secure but more complicated to set up.

SSL is the most common and provides the same level of security you would enjoy when you go on banking sites or other sites with sensitive information.

Each protocol has pros and cons; it’s especially good to be aware of PPTP vulnerabilities.

Logging: The irony of using a VPN is that while your data is encrypted from the outside world, it may not entirely prevent other systems on the same VPN, namely the operator, from logging your data. You can mitigate this by knowing what your VPN provider’s logging policies are before signing up. You can also consult this TorrentFreak article for a list of VPN providers that don’t log your activities, known as “anonymous” VPN providers.

Anti-Malware/Anti-Spyware: VPN doesn’t make you automatically invincible, although it does offer more protection. You should still be careful about what you download and use HTTPS whenever possible. For extra protection and peace of mind, you’ll want to look into VPN providers that offer anti-malware and/or anti-spyware services. This way you’re protected from viruses.

Mobile Apps: The mobile vs. desktop has tipped over some years ago in favor of mobile. But it’s highly likely you’re still working out of your desktop or laptop, so it makes no sense to have to use two VPNs for your computer and mobile device. Most good VPN service providers nowadays offer a streamlined experience across all platforms.

Pricing: Free isn’t necessarily bad in the case of VPNs, but you’ll be bombarded with ads that are tailored to your usage habits, which is a bit creepy if you think about it. However, if you rarely surf on the public or an unsecured network and just want something quick for a one-time trip, free is a good option.

Paid services differ in their level of quality but they don’t show ads. Use a free trial to determine whether you’ll like a particular service or not, before paying for a subscription.

Which VPN Should You Consider?

HostAuthority has a list of the top 5 VPN hosts, which you can read about here.

Private Internet Access ranked the highest on our list for meeting all of the above criteria. They don’t log data, they offer reasonable pricing for up to five simultaneous devices, and they support a number of different encryption methods.

The others on the list include TorGuard, IPVanish VPN, CyberGhost VPN, proXPN, and WiTopia. Whichever one you choose, it’s important to conduct your own research even if it’s a bit technical and complicated, and read reviews. Most importantly, start using one today – evaluate and cancel if you have to – so you can protect your data and have security down the line.

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