Security should be a top priority for you when you're surfing the web, especially if you're not at home on your own wifi network.

If you travel a lot, work in coffee shops with public wifi, or deal with sensitive data - or even if you use online banking, for example - you should consider taking some extra precautions.

One good way to help protect your personal data, and any sensitive info you might send through the interwebs, is getting a VPN. A Virtual Private Network adds an important layer of security when you're using the internet, and it's not hard to get one and set it up in a few minutes.

Let's look at what a VPN is, how it works to protect you, and what you can expect when you use one.

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What is a VPN?

A VPN is a service that allows you to browse the web more safely and anonymously. It's a connection method that essentially places your own private network on top of a public network so that your computer or device can connect to its destination as if connected directly through that private network.

How does it work?

A VPN takes the data that you send through the internet, encrypts it, passes it through its own server, and sends it to its destination.

A couple important things are going on here.

The VPN encrypts your data.

This means that hackers, the government, or your ISP (Internet Service Provider) can't see what you're sending or receiving. And yes, all of those entities can potentially gain access to your data with varying degrees of ease.

Basically, the VPN takes the data packets to be sent, wraps them in an extra layer of security (=encryption) and sends the encrypted packets on their way through an encrypted tunnel. And there's only one way to decrypt that data: with the unique key in the pair provided by the VPN.

So if someone intercepts that data, all they'll see is garbled nonsense that would take a supercomputer many, many years to decrypt without the key.

The VPN uses its own servers

In addition to making your data unreadable to hackers and others, the VPN passes that data through its own server before sending it to its destination. This makes it look like that data came from that server, and makes it virtually impossible to connect it to you.

Why is this important? Well, folks trying to steal your data can get a lot of info just from your IP address (which is unique to your computer). But if that's hidden (and a hacker just sees the VPN's IP address instead), a hacker can't get much info about you out of that.

Why should you get a VPN?

You might think you don't often find yourself in a situation where you need to be that concerned with online security. But a VPN can be helpful in numerous situations.

Frequent fliers

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If you travel a lot (or even a little) you'll likely encounter some sketchy or insecure wifi networks. This means that hackers could take advantage of that fact and snoop on your online activity.

If you get online via an insecure network, your data is even less safe than usual. But if you're using a VPN, your data is encrypted and ready to roll securely.

Dealing with sensitive info

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Do you bank online? Maybe you need to check your account balance. What about setting up doctor's visits or emailing a colleague about important research?

There are many instances where you might not want anyone else to see the data you're dealing with online. And using a VPN makes sure that no one (your employer, government agencies, malicious hackers) can capture those private details and use them to harm you.

Concealing/changing your location

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Certain countries restrict certain websites (like China banning Facebook, for example - but there are many others) and this might prove frustrating if you're traveling or have relocated to such a place.

If you have a VPN based in, for example, the USA where those restrictions don't apply, you should be able to bypass those restrictions and visit your favorite websites and use your favorite streaming services.

Remember why? Because a VPN uses its own servers (based in the USA or wherever the company is located) and websites identify those servers as the source of the device. So you could be in China surfing away via your Connecticut-based VPN.

Protecting your browsing

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Say you'd like to buy your daughter a birthday gift, but you don't want ads for that gift showing up on your family desktop. If you use a VPN, especially one with a no-logs policy (more on that below), that data won't be stored.

Note: If you need more info on private browsing, check out this article on incognito mode.

Different protocols, different levels of security

Different VPN services offer different features and use different protocols. This is definitely something you want to review before choosing a VPN.

Here are a few things to look for and keep in mind:

Choose a VPN that uses OpenVPN or IKEv2/IPSec

There are a number of protocols used by VPNs, but OpenVPN and IKEv2 are the best and most common.

OpenVPN is the most widely used protocol. It's safe, quite fast, and open source. So what's not to love?

IKEv2/IPSec isn't as common yet, but its security, speed, and responsiveness make it a really good choice.

Check the VPN's logging policy

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When you're choosing a VPN, check what they say about logs. Logs refer to the data the VPN keeps about you and your browsing sessions. It could be things like:

  • Your activity
  • Your IP address
  • When you get on/offline
  • What devices you're using
  • Payment history

Some of these things may not be super private, but they can pretty much all be used to learn more about you, which you don't want.

Some VPNs keep some logs. Some don't keep any (which you should definitely prefer). Bottom line: the more info a VPN stores about you, the more some other individual/agency can potentially find out. So look for a "no logs" policy in your VPN's privacy statement.

A VPN doesn't make you invincible

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You may think that using a VPN makes you completely invulnerable to online attacks. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.

A VPN is only as secure as its parts. So before you choose one, make sure you check for all features discussed in this article, like:

  • A solid, secure protocol (OpenVPN or IKEv2/IPSec when possible)
  • A no logging policy
  • The level of encryption the VPN uses
  • Whether they keep logs of your payment history (and potentially identifying info)
  • The rules of the country where the VPN is based (some countries may force VPNs to keep/hand over certain info)

Now that you have a bit more information about VPNs, you should be able to make an informed decision about whether to get one and how to choose the right one for you.

Happy safe browsing!