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Lesson 32: What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

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What is a virtual private network (VPN)?

In recent years, it's become easier for your online activity to be tracked. Internet service providers (ISPs) have access to your browsing activity, and it's not difficult for cybercriminals to steal sensitive information. So how do you maintain your privacy from all of this? One possibility is something called a virtual private network, or VPN.

A VPN provides a more secure way of connecting to the Internet that protects your browsing activity from being tracked by the parties mentioned above. Unlike a standard Internet connection, your ISP and hackers won't be able to see your browsing activity.

How a VPN works

With a typical Internet connection, you connect through your ISP, which then allows you to visit any websites you want. All of your activity gets passed through your ISP's servers, and they're able to see everything you're doing.

A VPN works a bit differently. Instead of connecting to the Internet using your ISP's server, it uses a server in another country. Your browsing activity made through this connection is encrypted, meaning it's completely secure and safe from any eavesdropping. It can only be seen by you and the VPN service.

Unfortunately, using a VPN will decrease your Internet speed. This is because the encryption process is time consuming, and your data also must travel farther than normal.

If you're using a VPN on a mobile device, it will only protect your activity within your browser. Any app activity or GPS data will still be reported to the apps' servers.

Why use a VPN?

The main reasons you'd want to use a VPN are to maintain your privacy and increase your security. While using one, your ISP won't be able to see your data or know which websites you're visiting; it will only see that you're connected to a VPN server.

Another big benefit is that VPNs give you more security while using public Wi-Fi hotspots. Most of these public connections are unencrypted, making it easier for hackers to spy on your activity and steal your login credentials or other sensitive information. However, if you're using a VPN, they won't be able to see this because you'll be using an encrypted connection.

In addition to individual use, many businesses use VPNs. They allow them to protect any sensitive data like client information, financial records, and more.

How to choose a VPN service

There are a lot of VPN services out there, and it can be difficult to sort through them all. As a starting point, there are plenty of helpful guides like this one that offer a list of the best available services. Some of the more popular VPNs include IPVanish, NordVPN, and Buffered VPN.

While trying to decide which service is best for you, here are a few factors you might want to take into consideration:

  • Pricing: While free VPN services are available, we recommend going with a paid service instead. Free versions will most likely have lower speeds, more limited functions, and ads. Some services charge monthly or annual fees, while others offer a single lifetime fee instead.
  • Speed: The Internet speeds available will vary from service to service.
  • Data usage: Much like phone plans, some VPN services only allow you to use a set amount of data within a certain time period.
  • Logging policies: Even though your ISP won't have access to your data, your VPN service will. Some paid versions and many free versions may log your data. If this bothers you, you may want to look for a VPN that doesn't log your activity.
  • Simultaneous connections: Some VPN services might only allow you to have one device connected to their servers at a time. If you plan on using a VPN for multiple devices, you'll want to find a service that offers simultaneous connections.
  • User reviews: One of the best ways to find out if a service is reliable and credible is to do your own research and see if it's well reviewed.
  • Mobile capabilities: If you want to use a VPN with your mobile device, you'll want to make sure it offers a mobile app. Most services offer both desktop and mobile versions, but it's always good to double check.

Once you find a VPN that seems like a good fit, you can download the app and get started. Most will guide you through how to set it up and use it. If you have any questions, you can contact the VPN's support services.

VPNs provide you with a much higher degree of privacy than your standard Internet connection. Even though they have a few downsides like slower Internet speeds and having to pay, it's probably worth it if you're worried about your online privacy and security.