Why you should use a VPN

Should you use a VPN

After shopping for a product, you’ve probably noticed advertising for it pop up later on unrelated websites. Your devices have an IP address, which is a string of characters that identifies where you go on the web. In an era where online privacy is increasingly under threat, your digital security has never been more crucial. Virtual private networks (VPNs) have emerged as a powerful tool for people looking to protect their sensitive data, maintain anonymity, and fortify their cybersecurity defenses. We’re exploring the key reasons why using a VPN is essential in today’s interconnected world.

What to know about VPNs

VPN stands for virtual private network. They encrypt data from your computers and devices to the internet by rerouting it to a private computer server. This masks your location and hides your IP address from websites. They also reduce the risks of using public Wi-Fi by acting as an encrypted middle ground between your device and internet router.

VPNs can be either software or hardware. Hardware VPNs (sometimes called VPN routers or VPN firewalls) are physical devices you connect to your computer, while software VPNs are apps or programs you install on your device. Because of their expense, size, and technical requirements, hardware VPNs are more commonly found in business settings. You likely will choose a software VPN for remote work or personal use.

Should you use a VPN?

Fortunately, most websites you use are probably encrypted—you can tell because the web address uses an HTTPS connection as its first four letters. Unencrypted web pages used to be a major reason to use a VPN. Now, most of the websites you visit use HTTPS, so it isn’t as much of an issue.

Still, it can create a useful barrier between your device and internet connection. This is important if you’re traveling and connect to public Wi-Fi. Nowadays, a VPN alone can’t mask your web activity from everyone—it won’t keep you anonymous if you log into a website via your Google or Microsoft account, for example.

A VPN prevents your internet service provider (i.e., the company that sells your internet access) from tracking your specific journey on the internet. However, they can still gather some data, like the fact that you’re connected to a VPN.

Using a VPN is great from a privacy perspective because service providers have a history of handing your data over to others, like selling it to marketers so they can target ads. Some people opt for one because they can help them access content on streaming platforms that might be blocked in their area, or they can bypass internet censorship in some countries.

Of course, a VPN can see what you do on its network. You should compare options and read through the terms of service to see what data they log, if any. Search reviews and ask your tech-savvy friends for advice.

Our verdict: protect yourself

Use a quality VPN as another layer of security for your digital life, especially if you ever use public or unsecured Wi-Fi networks. However, remember that it’s not a cybersecurity silver bullet that will replace antivirus programs, password managers, or enabling multi-factor authentication.

How to choose a VPN

When comparing options, read expert reviews and the terms of service. You want to ensure that it treats your data as sacrosanct—a free or extremely low-cost VPN might be worse than not using one at all.

Here are some other factors to consider:

  • Security and encryption infrastructure
  • Speed and performance
  • Privacy and data logging policy
  • Server locations and network size
  • Compatibility and features
  • Customer support and reviews
  • Price

You can look up quality reviews on Consumer Reports, Tom’s Guide, CNET, and Wired.

How to use a VPN

Setting up a software VPN is straightforward for most computers and smart devices. Generally, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Download and install the program on your device. Make sure you are downloading the program from the legitimate vendor.
  2. Create an account and sign in—turn on multi-factor authentication to keep your login credentials safe.
  3. Within the program, select a server location based on your needs.
  4. Connect to the VPN. Enjoy secure and private browsing!

Tips and tricks

While you’re browsing the internet on your VPN, here are some extra tips for optimizing it:

  • Flip on the “kill switch” feature to prevent data leaks if the connection drops. The kill switch will disconnect your device from the internet if you lose your VPN connection.
  • “Split tunneling” allows you to route some web traffic through the VPN and some through your regular network simultaneously. This is useful if a VPN is too slow for some uses (gaming, for example) or you’re prevented from accessing certain websites. This way, you can use a VPN for internet activities you want to keep protected, like banking or email.
  • Use a DNS leak test to check if your DNS requests are exposed. This will show if any of your web activity isn’t being correctly routed.
  • Use a speed test to check your VPN’s performance. Then you can tell if it’s working as advertised.

How to troubleshoot a VPN

Because most or all of your internet use moves through your VPN tunnel, you want to respond to problems ASAP. If these tips don’t help or you can’t find a solution, contact the VPN company directly.

My connection fails or drops frequently

If your VPN is fluttery or dropping often, check your internet connection, firewall settings, and server status. It might also help to switch to another protocol or server.

My internet is too slow

Encrypting and decrypting your web activity takes time, but most current VPNs shouldn’t noticeably impact most of your browsing activities. If your internet is moving at a snail’s pace, select a server that is closer geographically or less crowded. Reducing the encryption level might help, and you might want to think about setting up split tunneling. Also, disable background apps that consume bandwidth.

My VPN doesn’t unblock geo-restricted content

If you have trouble accessing content, clear the browser cache and cookies first. It might help to change your device’s time zone, too.

My VPN causes errors or crashes my device

Make sure your device and your VPN are running the latest updates—it’s a good idea to turn on automatic updates. If this doesn’t work, try to uninstall and reinstall the VPN software. If you’re still having trouble, you should contact the provider for support.

Bottom line: VPNs protect your online presence

Using a VPN increases your safety online and peace of mind, especially when traveling or using a public Wi-Fi network. Talk to your employer about setting up a VPN for work use and think about setting one up for personal use, so you can enjoy the internet safely.

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