(Almost) everything you always wanted to know about virtual private networks, but were afraid to ask
Enjoying life in the digital world comes at a cost: our privacy. Every website we visit, where we are, how much we spend, and what cards we’re paying with – this is just some of the information about you that is tracked, collected and monetized.
In a war scenario, the dangers are much higher: data can be misused in ways that are much more harmful to our virtual and real lives. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, for example, the demand for virtual private networks (VPNs) has soared by hundreds of percent both in Ukraine and Russia.
In this article, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about VPNs, how they work, and how using a VPN can add a layer of privacy protection to your online activities.
1. What is a VPN and how does it work?
You can think of a VPN as an invisibility cloak for your IP address. Instead of showing your IP address, your VPN will teleport your connection to a server in the country that you choose to connect to and show an IP address originating in that location.
This way, the VPN works as a protection layer, encrypting all the data that travels through it and enhancing your online privacy. Your information, location, and browsing history will be unreadable for anyone who tries to identify and track you. Not even your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be able to collect your information.
For example, when using public Wi-Fi, you are connecting to a network that is less safe, creating the perfect opportunity for hackers to access your devices. A VPN will make sure that your is connection is encrypted and protected against attackers who want to steal your personal information, passwords, or banking details.
At home, however you might assume your network is safe since you’re the owner, that is not necessarily the case. Unfortunately, you don’t know how safe your home network password is, nor if it has been compromised.
2. What are the benefits of using a VPN?
The long and the short of it is, using a VPN will:
- Protect your private information. The information you share is kept on the VPN servers in the country of your choice, thus not linked to you. Legitimate VPN services won’t record your searches and no one will know what sites you’ve visited. This is especially important if you live in a country where freedom of expression and the press are limited.
- Conceal your browsing information: A VPN will hide your IP address from your ISP and the websites and apps you’re using. However, your social media platform of choice, for example, may know it’s you using it, simply because you’re logged into your account – in other words, a VPN can’t make you completely anonymous.
- Allow you to access websites blocked in your country. If a website is not accessible where you live, as BBC is not accessible in Russia, you can bypass (some of) those limitations as your internet connection behaves as if you are somewhere else.
- More content available in your streaming platforms. Since your IP is in a different geographic location, you can also take advantage of different content on streaming platforms that offer different movies and shows in different regions.
- Ultimately, save some money as many online vendors raise prices in specific regions of higher income.
3. Is a VPN enough to protect my privacy?
No, it is not. There’s no such thing as a single solution for all your privacy and safety concerns. However, using a VPN is a solid start. You also need to take into account that there are many companies offering VPNs; you need to choose one depending on your needs.
Here are some things you should keep in mind:
- Due to the rerouting of your connection to a different server, your internet speed might be lower. Different services offer servers with different maximum speeds.
- Different companies are based in different countries and observe different rules and laws depending on data protection requirements in their respective jurisdictions.
- Some VPNs focus on data privacy and others on more complex safety features.
- Not all VPN services are as trustworthy as they may seem.
- VPNs are illegal in some countries, mainly in countries where you might need one to bypass limitations on accessing news media. In some other countries, it is not illegal, but governments systematically try to block access to their services.
- If you use a VPN while you’re logged into, for example, your social media account, your account activity does not remain hidden from that social media platform.
- No VPN offers full reliability, as companies, ISPs and some governments may try to block them.
- They cost (worth spending) money. Free VPNs may cause a host of their own problems and will likely keep your data and logs; most likely they will sell it, too.
4. How can I use a VPN like a pro?
Installing a VPN on each of your devices and switching it on and off all the time is possible, but quite annoying. Instead of connecting individually, you could enable the VPN option in your router, as long as it offers one (many indeed do).
All devices connected to such a network will now have their traffic go through the VPN’s encrypted tunnel, securing even those devices that don’t support apps, such as a smart lamp.
This is less user-friendly, but different vendors explain how to do it. It is, however, much safer and guarantees an extra layer of security.
5. Do I really need a VPN?
Generally speaking, we live in a world where our online activities leave digital footprints. Yesterday’s search about your back pain is today’s painkiller ad. That picture you took at the sea in the morning is a sunscreen recommendation in the afternoon. And even a search for a new job as a journalist can translate into an ad for a newspaper subscription. Our data is valuable for companies and they want to get as accurate information about our interests and location as the algorithms allows.
Virtual private networks are not a cure-all, but the more the internet is present in our lives, the more we can benefit from using one. Just be mindful that there are also some limitations.
At any rate, beyond enhancing your privacy and helping protect your sensitive data, VPNs can also make the digital lives of those in conflict regions safer. They can be a window to the world outside for those living in areas where free access to that window is obscured by politics or technology.