If you've ever looked into ways of improving your security or privacy online, or want to access content in a different country, you might have come across the idea of using a VPN. At which point you probably asked yourself: what exactly is a VPN?!
Let's take a look and see what a VPN can do for you.
What is a VPN?
By default, the internet is not terribly private or secure. Your broadband provider can see every website you visit; every website you visit can see where in the world you're located; and this information is often just floating around for anyone else to snoop on if they were so inclined.
A VPN - or virtual private network - fixes this. It encrypts your connection and hides your location. It can significantly enhance your security and privacy online, and bring other benefits, too.
To use a VPN you need to install special software on your computer, phone, tablet or other device, and to sign up to a VPN provider. When you run it all of your internet activity is filtered through a secure connection between your computer and one of the VPN provider's servers. This makes it hard for anyone to snoop on your data or online activities, including your broadband supplier.
When connected, you also adopt the IP address (the address of your computer on the network) of the VPN's server. Most VPN services offer multiple servers based around the world, so you can give the impression that you're connecting from another location, or even another country. That has its own advantages.
With all this in mind you might be wondering, are VPN's legal? Simple answer: Yes! In fact, VPNs aren't just completely legal, they're absolutely necessary. As much as we'll focus on the consumer benefits of the technology, the fact is that any business that allows its teams to connect to a work server from outside the office will do so using a VPN.
Why do you need a VPN?
When you talk about masking your online activity it makes it sound like you've got something to hide. That isn't true - there are many reasons why all of us should use a VPN:
- It's more secure. Your connection to the VPN is encrypted. This means all the data you download or upload is also encrypted, including the login details for all your online services. This is important at the best of times, but even more so if you ever use public Wi-Fi hotspots, like those in a hotel or when you hop on the network in your local Costa. You just don't know who else is connected to those networks, and if they're trying to intercept your data. Encrypting it protects you.
- It protects your privacy. Normally, when you connect to the internet you publicly broadcast your IP address. This is the virtual address of your computer on the network, but it can often translate to a very precise physical location. Take a look at whatismyipaddress.com and you'll see the location information every site you visit receives. All those location-aware ads you keep seeing around the web? This is one of the ways they track you. A VPN gives out, in effect, a fake IP address, making it much more difficult for sites to follow you online.
- It stops your activity being logged. Broadband providers are legally required to maintain a log of all the websites you have visited in the last 12 months. You don't need to be doing anything dodgy to regard this as a bit of an invasion of privacy. A VPN will allow you to browse the web in peace.
- You can bypass region restrictions. VPNs can also help you if you're on holiday abroad or an ex-pat living in the UK and want to access region locked content from your home country, such as local television streaming services or content in your first language. You may even be able to access region locked content on Netflix. VPNs offer you a choice of servers around the world. When you connect to one overseas you'll be able to access previously unavailable content specific to that area. Just select the country you wish to connect via and then access the web or apps as normal. Of course, there's no guarantee that some services won't block access to your account in future, and there are already services, particularly for video games, that already enforce region locking based on payment address or the origin of your payment card.
- VPNs can bypass internet restrictions. A VPN will enable you to access blocked websites, and you should probably also know that your kids can use one to bypass your broadband provider's parental control filters...
What are the downsides to a VPN?
Nothing comes without potential downsides, of course, and VPNs are no different.
- A VPN can slow down your internet connection. You should always shop around for one with the best performance. Most fast fibre broadband deals will be good enough to withstand any performance overheads, though.
- They require trust. Because all your traffic goes through the VPN, the VPN provider can potentially see which sites you're visiting. The best ones have clear privacy policies that state they don't log your activities, but not all are like this. Either way, a little trust is needed, although the encryption will at least ensure your data itself is never compromised.
- They can block region-specific content. Remember how we said you can access international versions of Netflix with a VPN? It works the other way, as well. Log into BBC iPlayer with your VPN running and it won't let you watch because it'll assume you're not in the UK. VPNs can also interfere with any other location-dependent services.
- Free VPNs may not actually be very private. Free VPN apps on phones and tablets often have a reputation for hoovering up your personal data - they have to fund their service somehow! You're usually better off going for a paid option.
Where can you get a VPN?
The big brands include companies like NordVPN and ExpressVPN. We also like some of the smaller ones such as the Sweden-based Mullvad and Swiss-based ProtonVPN, which is developed by MIT and CERN scientists.
Using a VPN can help to beef-up your security and privacy online. It's not the only thing you can do. Take a look at our guide to the broadband providers offering free anti-virus software, and also see how to set up parental controls to limit what your kids can do online.