Have you ever connected to a public Wi-Fi network and wondered if someone, somewhere might be able to see your online activity? It’s an entirely reasonable concern, considering the forces arrayed against your privacy. With a virtual private network (VPN), you can protect your information from prying eyes and regain a measure of privacy online.
What Is a VPN, and How Does It Work?
When you switch it on, a VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server operated by a VPN service. All your internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, so your data is secure from prying eyes along the way. Because your traffic is exiting the VPN server, your true IP address is hidden, masking your identity and location.
To understand the value of a VPN, it helps to think of some specific scenarios in which a VPN might be used. Consider the public Wi-Fi network, perhaps at a coffee shop or airport. Normally, you might connect without a second thought. But do you know who might be watching the traffic on that network? Can you even be sure the Wi-Fi network is legit, or might it be operated by some nefarious individual?
If you connect to that same public Wi-Fi network using a VPN, you can rest assured that no one on that network will be able to see what you’re up to—not other users snooping around for would-be victims, nor even the operators of the network itself. This last point is particularly important, and everyone should keep in mind that it’s very difficult to tell whether or not a Wi-Fi network is what it appears to be. Just because it’s called Starbucks_WiFi doesn’t mean it’s really owned by a well-known coffee purveyor.
When you’re at home, you don’t have to worry as much about someone spying on the Wi-Fi network because you own the network hardware. But a VPN can help here, too. Your internet service provider (ISP) has enormous insight into what you do online, and, thanks to Congress, your ISP can sell anonymized data about its customers. That means the company you pay for internet access is making money from your data.
While it is true that companies like Google and Facebook monetize your online behavior, you are not necessarily forced to use those services. If you suddenly decided to stop using Facebook, you might miss out on cute pet pics and political rants from your friends and family, but you could still live a decent, perhaps better, life. You don’t always have that choice when it comes to your ISP, which controls your home’s gateway to the entirety of the internet.
While there are alternatives to Google and Facebook, most Americans have limited home ISP alternatives. Many areas have only one ISP offering wired internet access. That makes recent changes that allow ISPs to sell data from their customers all the more troubling. It’s one thing to opt into a shady system, it’s quite another to have no choice in the matter.
Here’s another example: Let’s say you’re traveling abroad, and you fire up your browser only to discover that you can only visit localized versions of familiar websites. Maybe this just means a different Google Doodle, but it can also mean that the language of the websites you visit is now unfamiliar, certain sites are inaccessible, and some streaming content is out of reach.
With a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different country and spoof your location. If you’re outside the US, you can VPN back to a familiar location and access the internet (mostly) as usual. You can also do it in reverse. From the comfort of your home, you can pop over to a far-away VPN server, perhaps to access streaming video unavailable in the US.
VPNs can also grant access to blocked websites. Some governments have decided that it is in their best interest to block certain websites from access by all members of the population. With a VPN, it’s possible to tunnel to a different country with less oppressive policies, and access sites that would otherwise be blocked. And again, because VPNs encrypt all web traffic, they help protect the identity of people who connect to the open internet in this way. That said, governments are wise to this, which is why we’re seeing VPN use being blocked in Russia and China. A VPN is also no guarantee of total protection, particularly against a well-funded and capable adversary—a nation state, for example.
What a VPN Won’t Do
A VPN is a simple and powerful tool for protecting your privacy online, but the honest truth is that if someone targets you specifically and is willing to put forward the effort, they will almost certainly get what they’re after. A VPN can be defeated by malware on your device, or by analyzing traffic patterns to correlate activity on your computer to activity on the VPN server.
Even with a VPN, things like cookies allow companies to track your internet usage even after you’ve left their sites. Fortunately, we have a handy guide to pruning cookies on your browser. We also recommend using a tracker blocker, such as the EFF’s Privacy Badger, which can help keep advertisers blind to your movements. Many browsers, including Firefox, ship with privacy features that will improve your privacy—particularly when it comes to defeating browser fingerprinting.
VPNs also only do so much to anonymize your online activities. If you really want to browse the web anonymously, and access the Dark Web to boot, you’ll want to use Tor. Unlike a VPN, Tor bounces your traffic through several server nodes, making it much harder to trace. It’s also managed by a non-profit organization and distributed for free. Some VPN services will even connect to Tor via VPN, making this arcane system easier to access.
While VPNs are useful, they won’t protect against every threat. We strongly recommend using antivirus software, enabling two-factor authentication wherever it’s available, and using a password manager to create unique and complex logins for each and every online account.
Do I Need a VPN On All My Devices?
Yes, you will need to install a VPN client on each device you want to connect to the VPN. For the most part, VPN clients offer the same features across platforms but that’s not always the case.
For mobile devices, the situation is a little thornier. Most companies offer VPN apps for Android and iPhones, which is great because we use these devices to connect to Wi-Fi all the time. VPNs don’t always play nice with cellular connections, but it takes some serious effort to intercept cellphone data. That being said, law enforcement or intelligence agencies may have an easier time gaining access to this data, or metadata, through connections with mobile carriers or by using specialized equipment.
Do you use a less common OS? We offer a roundup of the best VPNs for Linux, as well as tips for how set up a VPN on your Chromebook.
Note that you can skip client apps altogether and connect to the VPN service simply using your computer’s network control panel. It comes with major drawbacks, however. For one thing, it’s tedious. For another, client apps give you access to more features. Since you’re paying for the bells and whistles VPN companies offer, you may as well be able to use them. VPN apps will also always be up to date with the latest server information, which will save you a lot of trouble.