Free Wi-Fi is something that we all gravitate towards to whether we’re in a coffee shop, at the airport or on holiday in our hotel rooms. Unbeknownst to many users, however, these open Wi-Fi connections are an excellent target for cybercrime. By connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi, unsuspecting users give way for opportunistic cybercriminals to intercept and pry on their internet activity. This is a scenario in which a VPN or Virtual Private Network can help by securing your connection. A VPN will encrypt all the traffic from your device so even if you’re connected to an unsecured Wi-Fi, your traffic is hidden from malicious users. But adding a layer of security and privacy is not all that a VPN can do.
In this article I will go into the details of how a VPN works, who and why should consider using a VPN, and what are the pros and cons of using a VPN.
How does a VPN work?
In a nutshell, a VPN is a way to create a secure network connection over an untrusted public network. It helps to think of a VPN as a firewall that protects your data online as opposed to a firewall that protects your data on your computer. How is this achieved? When you normally connect to the internet your internet traffic passes through your internet service provider’s servers, who is able to view your traffic. When connected to a VPN provider’s server, your data travels through an encrypted “VPN tunnel”, and your data is no longer visible to the ISP or anyone who may somehow intercept your data. Apart from your data being encrypted, your real IP address will also be hidden and you will be appearing to access the internet from the IP address of your VPN provider. Therefore, your internet activity can only be traced back to your VPN server’s IP address. If your VPN provider is located in another country (as VPN providers have several serves located in many different countries, you can choose a VPN server location), you will be appearing to access the internet from that country, even though you’re not physically located there.
A VPN won’t make you anonymous, given that a VPN provider can always know who you are, but it will provide you privacy, and good VPN provider will go to great lengths to ensure your privacy.
Why should You use a VPN?
In the past, VPNs were mostly used only by businesses to protect sensitive data and remote access their organization’s network. Today, VPN is no longer used exclusively by businesses, and anyone can use a VPN. In fact, many people do use a VPN for accessing content of streaming media providers like Netflix or Hulu that may not be available in their countries, hiding browsing activity, bypassing internet censorship, torrenting, safely using public Wi-Fi hotspots, etc. Therefore, a VPN is a good solution for anyone who wants to keep their internet activity private.
Advantages and disadvantages of VPN
Apart from the advantages represented for businesses such as scalability, low-cost alternative to leased lines, secure connection between business branches, and secure remote access for contractors and employees working from home, other advantages of VPN include:
- Hiding your real IP address, thus, helping you to avoid leaving a trail of your online activity;
- Circumvention of geo-restrictions – Som TV streaming services may block their service to international users, a VPN can help you access their content by setting your IP address to a specific location accepted by the streaming service;
- Access to the full World Wide Web – A VPN is a good tool to bypass web censorship or to avoid content surveillance in countries that have restriction over what their residents can access on the internet or in countries that have no regard for privacy;
- Safely use open Wi-Fis.
Using a VPN has a few disadvantages as well, these include:
- Your internet will slightly slow down. By how much, it depends on the location of the server you are connecting to and the speed performance of your VPN provider;
- While VPN works on mobile devices, the apps that you’re using can still determine your identity based on other data than your IP address;
- VPN will not make you immune to the tracking technologies used by websites;
- IP leaks (when your real IP is still visible even if you’re connected to VPN) and VPN dropouts (when VPNs fail) can still reveal your real IP;
- Using a VPN is illegal in some countries (e.g. China, Iran).
Top 3 VPN solutions
To get you started with a VPN, here is a quick overview of the top 3 VPN solutions:
Hide.me is a Malaysia based VPN service provider with a global network of servers amounting to 88 servers. Their initial market was Germany, which is why their servers located there usually provide better speeds. Hide.me takes privacy very seriously and claims that it doesn’t store logs of users’ online activity in any shape or form. In terms of subscription plans, Hide.me offers three plans: Free, Premium, Plus. The Free plan (no credit card required) includes 3 locations (Canada, Netherlands, Singapore), a so called “best effort” bandwidth, which means a minimum of 3 Mbit/s, and 1 simultaneous connection, but limited protocol support. The Premium plan starts at $11.67/month and includes 29 locations, unlimited bandwidth and data transfer, full protocol support, 5 simultaneous connections and port forwarding. The Plus plan for $5.42/month includes the features of the Premium plan except for the port forwarding, the number of simultaneous connections, which is limited to 1, and no unlimited data transfer, offering only 75GB of data transfer.
IncognitoVPN has over 35 servers located in 24 countries and over 30 cities, and boasts a network uptime of 99.999%. Although IncognitoVPN is newly founded, it has received a lot of positive feedback and reviews. They focus on the anonymity and privacy of their users and they also provide good value for money, through their competitive pricing plans. Here too, you can choose from 3 plans: Cloak ($3.99/month), Disguise ($4.99/month), and Anonymous ($5.99/month). The Cloak plan includes 7 locations, unrestricted bandwidth and data transfer, all protocols and 1 device connection. The Disguise includes all the features of the Cloak, but contains 30+ locations and allows 3 device connections. The last plan, the Anonymous, includes all the features of the Disguise plus Smart DNS. Mac OS, Windows, Android, iOS clients are available with all their plans.
TotalVPN is another top VPN service provider with 30+ locations worldwide, most of them based in the United States and Europe. They also have a 99.999% uptime guarantee and have a very simple pricing plan – a free tier and a Total Premium plan for €4.99/month, being one of the cheapest VPN providers out there. The Free tier includes 3 locations, limited bandwidth (2 Mbits/second) and data transfer, all protocols, and 1 device connection. The Total Premium Plan includes 30+ locations, unrestricted bandwidth and data transfer, all protocols, 3 device connections and premium proxy. TotalVPN also have a zero monitoring policy and they don’t keep logs of your browsing history.
If you take the diligence to protect your data on your computer by installing an antivirus software and backing up your files to the cloud, why wouldn’t you apply the same foresight to protect your online data? A VPN will have your back by providing a secure surfing experience and by preventing the theft of your personal information.