While the Internet has provided significant benefits to society, it has come at the loss of personal privacy. Unscrupulous individuals have been known to exploit vulnerabilities in network connections to track the online behavior of unsuspecting Internet users. Information such as passwords, financial details, account information, private communications between individuals and web browsing information can be obtained through the use of public Wi-Fi networks and, in some cases, home networks as well.
For this reason, many people opt to use a virtual private network, or a VPN, when using the Internet from a computer, phone, tablet or other devices. In most cases, they are concerned with exposing private information over public networks, but in some cases, using a VPN over a trusted home or business network can also make sense.
A virtual private network uses existing network circuits or protocols to create a private channel for point-to-point communications. In doing so, it also creates a unique IP address that is not connected to the IP address associated with the Wi-Fi service over which you are communicating. As a result, the VPN creates several layers of privacy for Internet users.
There are several reasons why someone would want or need to use a virtual private network:
The first reason why someone would want or need a virtual private network would be that he or she makes use of public networks while out and about. If you've ever logged into your local public library's Wi-Fi or enjoyed the hot spot at a coffee shop, you've made use of a public network. While these networks are convenient and can reduce the amount of data you use on your cell phone or laptop, you should also realize that your information is exposed to anyone in the area who is monitoring the use of these public networks. This is how hackers can get sensitive information such as passwords or credit card numbers, as well as photos or communications between you and your friends.
The second reason to use a VPN is to keep your browsing and search history private. Many of us assume that our online activity is private. However, website analytics can reveal the IP addresses of visitors. In some cases, the IP address can be associated with a particular user, making that person's identity known to the owner of a website. In addition, search engines can associate users with searches, and some people are not comfortable with this information being available to search engine businesses, as well as third-party marketers. A VPN creates its own IP address that is not so easily tied to an individual.
Another common reason for using a VPN is accessing content that is restricted from certain locations. For example, entertainment or sporting events can be streamed in some countries but not in others. An individual who would like to enjoy this content but is in a country where streaming is not possible could use a VPN to bypass restrictions and access the game or movie that he or she would like to see.
While both travelers and people who make use of public Wi-Fi networks can benefit significantly from the use of a virtual private network, the question of whether someone should use a VPN at home is less clear. Home and business Wi-Fi networks have passwords, and if the password is strong enough and is kept private by employees or household members, information transmitted over your network is likely to remain secure.
However, you may have reasons for using a VPN at home. The first reason may be that you would prefer to keep your Internet activities private from other household members. This can be particularly important if you live with roommates or people who you don't know well or simply don't trust.
Other reasons for home VPN are the same as those for using a VPN outside your residence: you may prefer to keep your browsing habits and search engine use private. In addition, you may wish to access geographically restricted content and a VPN will help you do that.
Warning: While it is perfectly reasonable to use a VPN to keep your Internet usage private from other household members, be aware that these individuals could access information about your online activities through other means, including checking your devices when you are not around. Consider using password protection on all of your devices, including laptop and desktop computers, smartwatches, mobile phones and tablets.
The sensitive nature of VPN use means that is important for you to do your research before selecting a virtual private network provider. Not all services provide the same level of privacy or ease-of-use.
Paid versus free VPN: while it may be tempting to choose a free VPN app, you should be aware that you give up some of your privacy when you make use of these apps. Information about your Internet use may be sold to third-party providers. While the app may be effective at preventing hackers from accessing information, you will still be making yourself vulnerable to data harvesters.
Security protocol: Find out what protocol the VPN service uses. Open VPN is considered by many in the industry to be the most secure option available at this time. Using a service that offers a less reliable option may provide you with a full sense of security.
Geographic concerns: This is not a concern for everyone, but if you plan to use your VPN to stream geo-restricted content, or if you have a deliberate strategy for concealing your location, you'll want to make sure the VPN service has a server in the area that will allow you to access content or maintain a consistent identity.
Service features: Consider your needs when selecting a VPN. If you plan to use a lot of data, you'll want to see if the service sets any data caps or requires you to purchase a more expensive plan if you plan to do a lot of streaming. Similarly, you'll also want to find out how many computers, tablets or phones you can connect to your plan. This information will be essential when crunching numbers to determine plan affordability.
Ease-of-use: Some VPN apps are easier to use than others. User-friendliness should be a consideration unless you are fairly technically savvy. You don't want to end up paying for services that you are unable to use or, even worse, unable to use in a way that protects your privacy.
Virtual private networks make sense for those who have specific privacy needs or who make use of public Wi-Fi networks. They may not be necessary for private home use, or use in private businesses, but could provide an additional layer of security, particularly if there is reason to be concerned about the possibility of household members or employees sharing Wi-Fi network passwords. If you are considering a VPN service, review options available in light of your own needs, and be sure to take into consideration the level of service and data provided when comparing costs. User experiences seem to vary widely in this industry, so it is important to check customer review sites and to ask for referrals from people you trust.
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