One of the increasingly common questions we are asked is what is a virtual private network (VPN), and should they consider one. With all the talk of net neutrality and internet privacy, that’s a good question, so we thought we’d spell it out for those unfamiliar with the tool.
Over the last few years, VPNs have gone from something only a handful of people were even aware of to a tool that more and more people rely on every day. Companies have used them for years, but they are relatively new to individual users. To put it simply, VPNs are an easy way to make yourself as anonymous as possible online while encrypting data.
Users simply connect with a private network run by a VPN provider. while connected, all data the user sends or receives (including data like web browsing history) is encrypted and their IP address is masked. Most VPNS also have the option of selecting which country you wish your IP to appear as if it was from, which can grant access to content that is geographically locked – although this is becoming less and less possible as providers catch onto it.
For example, Netflix offers different content to customers in different countries. This is mainly due to licensing agreements that are geographically specific. An example of this is the new Star Trek: Discovery TV show coming later this year. In the U.S. and Canada, it will be available exclusively through the CBS All-Access streaming platform. That service has not yet traveled beyond those two countries, however, so users in the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and every other country with Netflix will be able to watch it on that streaming platform.
Netflix, Hulu, and others that provide licensed content rely on the IP of the user to determine what content to provide. Because of this, it’s not surprising that they have tools that can determine if a VPN is in use. If so, it will refuse to stream any content (you can still search the library if you really want to though).
When to Use a VPN
There are many reasons to use a VPN on your computer, tablets, and smartphones based on the needs of a user. Most tech savvy users have a firewall and anti-virus software to protect their computer when they connect online. If you spend a lot of time online, you know the importance of this. A VPN protects the data itself before it reaches the firewall.
Many international companies have used VPNs for years to allow multiple offices and users the ability to connect to a corporate intranet from anywhere. In that case, it is simply about presenting a cohesive network. If you’ve ever logged into your company’s internal network while on the road, you probably did so through a VPN of some type, even if you didn’t realize it.
For others though, the appeal of a VPN is to make an online connection anonymous. That can help if you are surfing websites you don’t trust, you are traveling abroad and are concerned about the censorship policies of some governments, or you simply don’t want anyone to have access to your online history. That includes both the government and your internet service provider.
One of the more frequent reasons for using a VPN is to block an ISP from collecting and selling your data to a third-party. When connected to a VPN, the ISP can only see that the user is connected to a virtual server and nothing more. That prevents ISPs from monitoring your web traffic and selling it to third-parties.
We at Stephouse Networks are keenly aware of this practice of selling data, and while we have pledged to never share our customer’s data without their express consent (and even then there would need to be a compelling reason like trouble shooting), VPNs aren’t just for a single connection.
There are several VPN services on the market that feature multiple licenses as part of the price. You can download the program on your computer and use it that way, and most also offer apps that can be installed on smartphones and tablets. Beyond just the privacy they offer, it can also be a strong tool in order to add a layer of security when you are connecting to private and public networks you may not be familiar with.
The downsides of a VPN
Regardless of the VPN, there are certain limitations you’ll need to accept.
When connected to a VPN, your connection speed is going to drop noticeably. Your data has to travel through the VPN server before it gets to you, which will delay it a bit. Encrypting data also requires processing power, which can slow it down. If you have a powerful computer – or even a powerful smartphone or tablet – the slowdown for encryption will be fairly minor. Older computers will suffer a bit, however, and the stronger the encryption the more slowdown you can expect.
Another minor drawback while using a VPN is that if you choose another country to be the site of your virtual IP address, most international sites will default to that location when they serve you. So while there might be a virtual server in France with significantly less workload than one in the U.S., if you have it on and go to Google, it will take you to Google’s French page. Using it will bring up search results that favor the French language and French business, but you can always default to the U.S. version. A slightly bigger deal is a site like Amazon, where it too has geographically-specific products, pricing, and shipping options that may not be available to customers in the U.S.
As noted above, you will also lose access to most major streaming services. Even if you have a valid login, the services will recognize that you are using a VPN and lock you out.
None of this is a huge problem, of course, but it does add a few extra steps to your web browsing.
Choosing a VPN
If you are interested in a VPN, there are a few things to consider when it comes to costs. There are plenty of companies out there offering incredible deals on monthly, yearly, and even lifetime subscriptions to their VPN service. They all have their pros and cons, so choose one that does what you need for a price you are comfortable with. There are several reviews and guides to selecting the best VPN for you, but ultimately it will come down to a matter of preference.
If you are technically minded, you can even set up your own VPN service. It requires a fair amount of technical knowledge though, so fo rmost a paid VPN service will probably be a better option.
There are also some free VPN services, but they tend to come with significant limitations, and some have been known to sell your data. Just be sure to trust recommendations from sites you trust and you’ll be fine.