To Use a VPN or Not to Use a VPN? That is the Question

To answer this question properly, first we need to understand what a VPN is and how it works.  So let’s get to it.

NB. If you don’t want to read the entire article and just want to skip to the conclusion, scroll down to the “Back where we started” section near the end, or click here.

What is a VPN?

In its simplest form, a VPN (or Virtual Private Network) is a secure, encrypted connection between a local computer (or network of computers) and a remote computer (or network of computers).  By remote, I simply mean somewhere out on the internet.  A VPN can be used for many things; for example, connecting into the office network from home.  However, in the context of this article, we’re focusing on its ability to provide both privacy and security.

When you connect to the internet through your ISP (Internet Service Provider)your traffic usually goes directly to the website you are visiting, as shown in the figure above.  The problem with this is that your connection is exposed to the entire internet and the potential is there for the data being transmitted to be attacked (represented by the skull and crossbones).

With a VPN, you connect to the VPN company’s servers over a secure connection first.  Since this connection is encrypted it is extremely difficult for hackers to intercept your traffic.  Think of it like going through a secure tunnel across the internet that no one else can enter (even your ISP doesn’t know what the traffic is, they just know you’re connected to a VPN).  Then, after the data reaches your VPN provider, it goes out across the internet as normal to access the website you want to visit.

Can’t my data be accessed when it leaves the secure tunnel?

That’s a good point, and certainly the potential is there for this to happen.  But, even if it did, your data would appear to have come from the VPN provider rather than your own computer.

So my ISP can’t spy on me. Won’t the VPN provider do this instead?

Tinfoil hat time!  Of course there’s always a possibility, albeit a very small one.  Remember, your privacy is their business.  These companies exist to protect privacy.  It’s in their interest to keep your data safe.  If they started leaking private information, they probably wouldn’t be in business very long.  This is a very different business model to your Internet Service Provider, whose main job is to ensure you can connect to the internet.

Do VPNs keep logs?

This depends on the VPN.  You should check their privacy policy before signing up.  At the time of writing, three key players in the field (Private Internet Access, ExpressVPN and NordVPN) all claim that they do NOT keep logs of your activity.

Where in the world am I?

Your computer uses an IP (Internet Protocol) address to connect to the internet.  This is usually given to you by your Internet Service Provider, and can be used to identify you.  This is known as geolocation, which simply means identifying where (in the world) an object is located.  In this case, that object is you.

An added benefit of using a VPN is being able to make yourself appear as though you are located in another country.  What’s the point in that, you might well ask.  As you probably know, some services on the internet are only available in certain countries.  Take the BBC iPlayer, for example.  You can only watch its online content from within the UK.  What if you’re on holiday abroad and would like to catch up on your favourite show?

Well, ordinarily you’d be out of luck, but with a VPN, you simply select that you’d like to connect to one of your VPN provider’s UK servers and away you go (obviously the VPN company would need to have servers available in the UK for this to work.  You can usually check the countries in which a provider’s servers are located before signing up with them).

How do I get a VPN?

Easy.  It doesn’t even require any extra equipment (hardware).  Just find a provider whose services and prices fit the bill, then sign up for an account.  I’ve listed a few of the most popular VPN providers at the end of this article to help you get started.  Once you have an account, simply download the software and install it on your computer.  You will use this to connect and disconnect from the VPN.  You can usually set it up to connect automatically when you log on, if you’d sooner.

Depending on what type of router you have (most people tend to use the one supplied by their ISP), you may be able to connect this to the VPN.  This way, all the devices in your house that connect to your router for their internet access will automatically connect through the VPN.  This can save you from having to add each device individually.  Most VPN providers limit the amount of devices you can simultaneous connect to their service.  Connecting your router to the VPN (instead of each computer, laptop, etc.) has the added benefit of being able to use all of your devices (even your games consoles) through the VPN without exceeding your connection limit.

Can’t I just use a free VPN?

Not a great idea for a couple of reasons.  First, most providers offer a low amount of data with their free service, which means streaming videos is probably out of the question.  Second, the connection speed itself is often much slower and can lead to a frustrating experience.  Also, if you’re not paying for the service, how much can you really trust the company with your data?  I’m not suggesting they sell it off to the highest bidder, but they do have to make money some how.

What is the best VPN?

This one comes down to personal preference.  Check the VPN company you’re thinking of going with has servers in the country(s) where you want them (particularly important if you’re going to stream geo-restricted content, as mentioned earlier).  Also be sure to check the details of the package they’re offering and find a price that suits your budget.  Note. The longer you sign up for, generally the cheaper it works out per month.  Some of the providers offer a free trial, so you can make sure you’re happy with the service before signing up.  Any decent paid-for VPN service should easily handle the connection speed necessary for streaming videos.

You can also use a website like Trustpilot to see what other people have to say about a provider.

https://www.trustpilot.com/

While I’m not going to recommend a best provider, the only thing I would say (for the reasons discussed earlier), is it’s probably best to avoid the free options.

Is a VPN legal?

In majority of countries, paying for and using a VPN service is perfectly legal.  Remember, doing anything illegal online while using a VPN is still against the law.  You can check that the country you’re physically located in allows using VPNs here.

https://thebestvpn.com/are-vpns-legal-banned-countries/

Do I need a VPN if I have a firewall?

Having a firewall, while essential when using the internet, has nothing to do with using a VPN.  While a firewall will help protect your computer from being hacked, it will do absolutely nothing to stop your internet activity being monitored.

Do I need a VPN if I use https?

This is a slightly more interesting question.  Using HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure) – it’s the “S” at the end that’s important as it stands for “Secure” – means that any traffic between your computer and the website employing this protocol is encrypted.  So, in theory, you should be safe.  The problem is that, when you see the “https” in your web browser’s address bar, this encryption is provided by the website you’re currently connecting to.  There is no guarantee that the next site will use a secure connection.  Even today there are many websites that use no encryption at all (look for “http” in your address bar, with NO “s” on the end), leaving your data in plain text for all to see.

Also, visiting a website that uses https does not stop the sites you’ve visited from being tracked.  Your computer uses a service known as DNS (Domain Name System) to find its way around the internet. Think of it as the web’s telephone book.  Computers do not understand names, instead they use numbers.  As people, (unless you’re Rain man) we’re not that great with long numbers, which is why we use website names instead.  It is the job of your DNS provider (usually your ISP, by default) to provide this service.  Without it you’d have to type in a different long number for each and every website you wanted to visit.

As an example, let’s say we’re searching for hairyhobbits.com (which is known as a Domain Name).  DNS converts this into the numbered address of the Hairy Hobbits website (its IP address).

Now we’ve got that out of the way, and I hope you’re still with me at this point, how does this relate to https websites and being tracked?  Well, even though a https site is secure, your ISP still knows where you’ve been as you most likely used their DNS server to get there.  Using a VPN sends all your traffic (including DNS requests) to the VPN provider so it’s as secure as any other traffic.

Is my VPN leaking?

No, in spite of the image, this doesn’t mean you’re leaving wet patches all over the place!  Obviously, the whole point of connecting to a VPN is to keep your data safe and secure.  To be sure this is definitely the case, it’s worth checking your VPN connection isn’t leaking data that could be used to identify you.  There are a couple of handy websites to help you check your connection is working properly.  The first site allows you to check your real IP address is being concealed.

https://www.iplocation.net/

To use it, first visit the website (linked above) without connecting to the VPN and make a note of your public IP address (this is the address your ISP assigns you to connect to the internet).  Next, connect to the VPN and reload the webpage.  If your VPN is working correctly, the public IP address should change to the one assigned by your VPN provider.

The second website provides even more information about your internet connection.

https://ipleak.net/

Again, first visit the site without being connected through the VPN.  This time look for your “DNS Address”.  It will most likely be the same as your IP address, particularly if you’re using your ISP’s DNS server.  Next, connect to the VPN.  Now reload your web browser and check your “DNS Address” again.  It should have changed to that of your VPN provider.

That’s it.  If your IP and DNS address both changed once connected through your VPN, you can be confident that your internet traffic is being securely encrypted.

What about using Free Wireless?

If you use free wireless hotspots, the kind offered in public places such as coffee shops, I would say using a VPN is an absolute must.  There are multiple risks when connecting to one of these networks.  The company who owns the wireless network could be monitoring your traffic, or more worrying, are you really sure it’s their Wi-Fi?  It’s easy for a hacker to setup a fake wireless network and name it the same as a legitimate one.

The only way to be completely safe is by either not connecting to free Wi-Fi in the first place, or using your VPN connection when doing so.  This way, even if the wireless network isn’t what it seems, your data will still be safe as you’re running through the encrypted VPN tunnel.  If you must use free Wi-Fi without a VPN, at the very least make sure you never carry out any personal transactions, such as online banking.

Do I need a VPN at home?

While not as essential as if connecting to other people’s Wi-Fi, a VPN can certainly be beneficial at home as well, especially if you value your privacy.  Since a VPN prevents your activity from being monitored, this has the added benefit of preventing advertisers from tracking you.  Indeed, most of the top VPN providers also include ad blocking (to prevent the most annoying ads ruining your browsing experience) in their packages.  Some of them even block malware (malicious software), too.

Can I use a VPN on my mobile phone?

You sure can.  Most of the popular providers offer a free app you can download and install on your device.  Then just enter your VPN account details and you’re off (to whatever country you choose to connect to!)

Note. If you connected your home router to the VPN (as we discussed earlier), your mobile will automatically work through it as well (assuming you’re connected to your Wi-Fi).

Back where we started

Now we know what a VPN is, how one works (and hopefully understand how this protects your privacy), we come back to the key question.

Do I really need a VPN?

In our modern age, mass surveillance is happening on a global scale.  There are international surveillance alliances representing various countries around the world, working together to collect and share data. Combined these are known as “14 Eyes”. You can read more about the subject here.

https://restoreprivacy.com/5-eyes-9-eyes-14-eyes/

Even Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, said, “Some people say privacy is dead – get over it. I don’t agree with that. Privacy is very important.”

Without doubt, using a VPN is the single best way to ensure your online privacy, security and anonymity.  So, in answer to the question, do I need a VPN?  If you care about your privacy, the answer must surely be a resounding yes.  Ultimately, though, this is a decision only you can make.  Hopefully, now armed with the information in this article, you can better make an informed choice as to whether a VPN is right for you.

Popular VPN Providers

Private Internet Access (PIA)

https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/

NordVPN

https://nordvpn.com/

ExpressVPN

https://www.expressvpn.com/