5 Reasons to Use a VPN
For many folks, VPNs—also known as Virtual Private Networks—sound like something you only need if you’re a corporate spy or a politician. There’s no way random internet data thieves are interested in your family newsletters or the password to your Facebook account . . . right?
Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Hackers probably don’t want to hijack your Facebook account—but, if you’re like many Americans, that same password probably opens other accounts.
There’s an easy, secure fix to all of this: a VPN.
What is a VPN?
A VPN is a software program that adds the most basic level of security to a public network by creating a virtual private network. It does this by encrypting your data and sending it to a remote server (located somewhere in the world, just not where you are), where the data is decrypted and sent along to its original destination.
This accomplishes two things: first, any data you send is secure from people on your current network; and second, identifying information about your current network, such as location, is hidden from any websites you access because your data looks like it’s coming from the VPN’s remote server.
You might think you don’t need to use a VPN, especially if you’re just using the internet for basic stuff like email, social media, and the occasional Netflix marathon. But there are plenty of situations in which you might want to use a VPN, even if you’re just sending (what you think is) boring, uninteresting data. Here are five times you should definitely consider a VPN.
1. Working from home
VPNs were—unsurprisingly—originally designed for businesses with multiple locations or remote employees. A VPN allows a company to maintain a secure network that can be accessed from anywhere with the right software and credentials.
Just remember that a work network is still a work network—outsiders can’t see what you’re sending, but your company still can.
2. Circumventing regional restrictions
If you’ve ever traveled to another country only to find that you’re suddenly unable to access all the websites and services you normally use, a VPN could come in handy.
I’m not just talking about streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu (global entertainment licensing is complicated), though this is probably one of the most popular reasons people turn to VPNs while traveling. Many online retailers won’t let you browse a country’s website if you’re not there, which is frustrating for residents who are just traveling. Some government websites are also region-restricted for security.
Luckily, a VPN can trick most of these sites into thinking you’re in the correct region, so you don’t have to worry about not being able to watch Netflix, shop, or pay traffic tickets online while traveling.
3. Skirting government censorship
While the US government doesn’t restrict or control what its citizens do online (though it does, to some extent, track them), not all governments are as hands-off.
Many countries—including China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Cuba—actively censor the internet and monitor citizens’ online activity. China’s notorious “Great Firewall of China” even blocks staples like Google and Facebook. If you happen to live in (or visit) a country with strict censorship laws, using a VPN to skirt them is a risky move—but often a necessary one.
4. Testing your internet speed
Traditional internet speed test websites may not detect Internet Service Provider (ISP) throttling because some ISPs just don’t throttle their network for those websites.
If you really want to find out whether your ISP is artificially lowering your speed, use a VPN. A VPN masks your activity from both the origin and the destination, so your ISP won’t know if you’re hitting up speed test sites or merely browsing Instagram. In extreme cases, you may want to use a VPN full-time to keep yourself off the throttle list (though you probably shouldn’t jump straight to this option, as using a VPN can also slow down your connection).
5. Using a public network
If you ever use a public, unsecured network—or any network where you’re not sure who else is connected, including private community networks (such as a hotel network with a password)—you should probably also be using a VPN. It’s not difficult for strangers with a little know-how to see what you’re doing on a shared network, whether that’s logging into social media or checking a credit card statement. A VPN is a cheap (sometimes free) solution that turns a public network into a private network and keeps your passwords and browsing activity safe from prying eyes.
There are plenty of reasons to use VPNs on both public and private networks—mainly general privacy and added security—even if the extra step means sacrificing some convenience. Just remember that using a VPN will most likely slow down your network speeds a little, so it’s important to start with a solid connection.
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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer and editor who covers tech, gaming, and the internet for publications including CNET, PCWorld, Macworld, and TechHive. She’s also a lifelong freelancer, a night owl, and a salad junkie. You can follow her on Twitter @geeklil or check out her portfolio at www.geeklil.com.