Nowadays, many of us are spending the bulk of our time in front of our computers or smartphones.
Sometimes that’s at home, through secure, private networks. Other days, it’s on a park bench connected to public WiFi, or at a cafe. With cybercriminals launching new attacks every day, it’s hard to know how safe those open networks are.
Enter a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This tool, perhaps best known for letting you stream movies licensed outside the U.S. and find better deals online, can also be used to safeguard your data while scrolling. But it can be tricky to shop for.
Here’s why you might want a VPN, and how to find the right one.
What is a VPN?
What you do online isn’t private. Your internet provider can see what you search for, what you download, where you're located and more. Through encryption, a VPN keeps all this activity private.
Say you want to watch a video on Youtube at a coffee shop. When you type Youtube.com into your browser, you’re beaming out data — like your IP address, and your location — to a public server (some of which are fairly easy to hack into) before sending you back to the site. A VPN acts as a sort of invisibility cloak during that in-between by encrypting your data; blocking everyone but you from seeing it. This may not seem too important for a site like Youtube, but if you think about all the times you've checked your bank account or other private information on public WiFi, it's easier to imagine how scary inadvertently giving someone access to your data can be.
Remaining anonymous with a VPN also prevents websites from collecting your data — which means less targeted advertisements from brands that want your business.
Why do people use VPNs?
Originally, VPNs were used by employees of big companies, organizations and governments to ensure remote workers had a secure connection. Today — with so many more people online and connecting remotely — VPNs are also popular among everyday consumers.
One of the biggest reasons VPNs are so popular is, of course, to protect sensitive data from hackers when users access public WiFi. But they can also be used to stream international movies, block advertisements, find the lowest prices for hotels and more, according to VPN.com.
Keep in mind that while VPNs are legal in the U.S., not all countries have the same stance on them. Russia, for one, has stricter VPN laws.
Why should I care about VPNs?
If you’re not keeping government secrets or doing sensitive business dealings, getting a VPN might not seem necessary. But protecting your virtual data is more important than ever, as hackers develop new, sophisticated ways to steal this information.
There are plenty of other benefits to owning a VPN. Websites often track people coming to their site by monitoring their IP address, which a VPN allows you to conceal. That's a win for your privacy, since information about your online activity can't be sold to marketers, and also allows you to create the appearance of being in a different location than you actually are. If you go on a vacation overseas, you can connect to your bank back home, even if its online banking portal is restricted to U.S. logins.
In countries that block Facebook, or where Google services are restricted, people use VPNs to access those sites as normal. Here in the U.S., online shoppers use VPNs to keep their location private while shopping around, and to access better deals on airlines and hotels internationally.
Some people use VPNs to stream content from sites like Netflix that isn't available in the states. This is a bit of a gray area because — even though you’re paying for the service — the terms and conditions may prohibit you from this workaround, so be sure to double-check. And keep in mind using a VPN to download illegal files like movies is still very much, illegal.
Are VPNs safe?
There are tons of VPNs on the market, but they’re not all secure. In a 2020 report, ProPrivacy found that more than 40% of the top 250 free VPN apps in the Google Play Store failed to adequately protect users’ privacy. So it can pay off to pay for a VPN, instead of going with a free one. Plans tend to cost around $12 a month, with prices as low as $3 or $4 per month if you commit to a year or more.
Do your research. Going on an app store like Google Play and looking at the reviews isn’t the best way to find out if a VPN is secure since some concerns — like spyware, which aims to access or damage your computer — may be happening without the reviewer noticing, says Ray Walsh, a VPN expert at ProPrivacy.
Choose a VPN with a "no-logs policy," Walsh advises, which means the VPN isn't collecting and storing information about what a user is doing online.
That said, you don’t necessarily need to eliminate all American VPNs from your list of options, Walsh says. Some VPN companies have "warrant canaries" which alert users when the company receives a warrant.
Overall, it pays to choose a VPN from a reputable provider, Walsh says. Companies like ExpressVPN and NordVPN are well-known, credible options.
Which VPN is the best?
There are two types of VPNs: those used by corporations and those used by consumers. Assuming you’re looking for a VPN for everyday, consumer use, there are apps for desktops and laptops, and the three major operating systems (Android, iOS and Windows).
Reliable VPN providers usually create "ecosystems" that allow multiple devices to be protected with one account, says Daniel Markuson, digital privacy expert at NordVPN. (His company, for one, lets users protect up to six devices, including phones, computers, routers, browsers, and smart TVs.) Multiple people can use one VPN, though giving someone access to your VPN, and by proxy, your VPN password, could create privacy issues.
VPNs can vary a lot — some offer service in 100 countries; some offer service in 30.
If you’re going the recommended, reputable provider route, there are tons of options. NordVPN charges $3.71 per month for a two-year plan, or slightly more if you commit to a shorter term. Its reviews on ProPrivacy says it's the best for unlocking streaming services, and for Mac users.
With ExpressVPN, you can choose between 160 locations across 94 countries. That wide choice in where you connect to helps make it one of the fasted VPN providers in the world. The company also has lots of guides and customer service options that make it easy to use, according to ProPrivacy.
CyberGhost VPN is another option. With one subscription you can cover up to seven devices, and you can test it out for 45 days with a money-back guarantee. ProPrivacy says this one is a "great value" VPN, with reliable servers inside and outside the U.S.