Safer browsing. How Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provide security and protect your privacy when you use the internet.

Photop of womany holding a tablet computer logged into a VPN (Virtual Private Network)
Image by Stefan Coders from Pixabay

Relatively few internet users realize that what they do online can be monitored and that the private information share online can be intercepted, recorded and perhaps even exploited by criminals.

In order to combat these problems, growing numbers of people are using Virtual Private Networks available from Virtual Private Network (VPNs) providers. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provide online security and enable anonymous browsing. This makes them an effective way to protect yourself against personal data theft and loss of privacy.

What is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) service provider protects your security in two ways. Firstly, it encrypts the data which passes from your computer or other internet enabled device to your server. This encryption process is designed to render your data unintelligible to 3rd parties. Secondly, a VPN provider routes your data through their own servers and these can be located all over the work. This effectively means you are able to browse the web anonymously.

How VPN data encryption makes your private data more secure.

VPNs create a secure and encrypted link between your computer and the VPN’s server. This protects the data passing between your computer and your VPN’s server from unauthorised access by 3rd parties. (See Fig 1, below)

Fig 1: VPNs secure and encrypt your connection by creating a secure, encrypted link between your computer and the VPN’s server.

This process is very effective as it renders data unintelligible to hackers and other 3rd parties who may want to steal personal data and/or invade your privacy.

Travellers and people on vacation wanting to use public wi-fi networks to communicate with friends and family securely have the most to gain from using VPNs. They find using public wi-fi networks such as those free wifi services found in public places like airports, coffee shops and hotel lobbies very convenient. However, users are not always aware that these services are unlikely to be particularly secure. A VPN provides a very effective layer of security, which means that criminals and other unauthoried 3rd parties will be unable to access your personal information when you use unsecured public wi-fi networks.

The potential dangers of accessing the internet on public networks without a VPN cannot be overstated. Using public wi-fi networks without using a VPN means that personal data such as passwords, emails, photographs, online banking login details, credit card details and much more could be stolen by criminals. Furthermore, criminals are attracted to unsecured wifi networks as they know that many people use them without encrypting their personal data.

How a VPN’s server network lets you browse the internet anonymously

VPNs are frequently used by private individuals looking to access websites blocked by the authorities in the country they live in. Authorities can block access to people located in certain countries because they can identify which country you are located in.

However, VPN service providers overcome this restriction by allowing you to browse the internet using the VPN provider’s own servers. These are likely to be located all over the world. All a VPN user needs to do is decide which country they wish to ‘appear’ to be located in and select a service in that country. Once they have done so they ‘appear’ to be located in that country. So, even though you may be in say, Paris, France, you can select a VPN server located in, for example, the US. Then it would appear that you were accessing a website from the US, rather than France. This ensures that your private details are not logged by 3rd parties when you visit different websites.

It can be quite surprising how much visitor information is actually recorded and stored when you visit a website (without using a VPN). This information can include:

  • Your approximate location
  • The Operating System of the device you are using
  • The type of browser you are using
  • Your Internet Service Provider
  • Your IP address

Using a VPN means that your true location is hidden and are able to browse the web anonymously. This is important because many countries ban or restrict access to certain websites. This may be for copyright reasons, for other legal reasons (such as because of the content promotes terrorism, for example), or because the government in that country does not agree with the content of a particular website.

Important: While a VPN may let you bypass government restrictions you should bear in mind that accessing restricted sites may actually be illegal and the penalties for accessing restricted sites could be quite severe in some countries.

We discussed above how governments restrict access by it’s citizens to certain websites. Well, companies themselves may restrict access to their website based on the site visitor’s geographical location. This is called geo-blocking and it is usually done for commercial and/or legal reasons.

For example, advertising and marketing company InboxDollars.com uses geo-blocking to block site visitors from the UK, and redirects them to their company site in the UK InboxPounds.com (See fig 2, below).

Fig 2: Marketing website InboxDollars.com blocks site visitors located outside the US from opening an account.

Video streaming companies use geo-blocking to regulate who can and cannot access their sites. For example, to access Netflix USA you need to be in the US. Similarly, if you want to access TV shows on the UK’s BBC iPlayer service you need to be in the UK. So, for example, even though you have paid to access Netflix USA the fact that you are outside the US means that you cannot access the site.

VPNs overcome this problem by letting you access these services using VPN’s own servers which are actually located in those particular countries.

Geo-blocking can also be a problem when purchasing from websites located in other countries. Websites may vary the cost of items on their site, or even decline to complete a financial transaction, based on the apparent location of the person making the purchase. Again, VPNs can help overcome obstacles like this by making it appear as if the person making the purchase is located in the same country as the retailer.

Conclusion

VPN software can be easily downloaded and installed on phones, tablets and laptops and there are a wide range of VPN providers in the market today.

Whether you want more security when accessing the internet through public wi-fi networks or you want to bypass access restrictions, VPNs are a relatively simple solution to a potentially massive problem. Furthermore, the benefits of VPNs mean that their use is only going to increase in the future.

So, what do YOU think? Do you use a VPN? If you do, why? Share your views about using VPNs with our community in the comments section below.

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