The internet is a messy, tangled place. Your data bounces unpredictably from country to country, inviting someone to snoop on it. If you’re an American, you don’t even need to wait for a hacker to single you out, however. Thanks to the US Congress recently overturning an Obama-era privacy rule, your browsing history can once again be sold to the highest bidder.
The privacy rollbacks in the US have lead to renewed chatter about how to use the internet safely and privately. But despite the glut of Google results, it’s easy to be misled into solutions that are either woefully naive or painfully complex. How should the average internet user protect him or herself?
One oft-repeated answer is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs are a tried-and-true internet technology, traditionally used to allow company employees to connect securely to their business network when they aren’t in the office. Essentially, a VPN “tunnels” your internet traffic onto a private network before it sending it out onto the public internet, allowing the user to access private company files or safely browse the internet as though they were using an office server.
Many companies now sell access to VPNs for non-corporate users. If you live outside the US, you may have tried using a free one to “dial in” to the US so you could watch the latest House of Cards. (Netflix’s licensing restrictions limit where some movies and shows can be watched around the world. The streaming site has also been cracking down on VPN usage.)
However, it’s important to remember that not all VPNs are created equal. Figuring out the right one for you requires thinking carefully about what you need.
What can a VPN protect me against?
The primary use of a VPN is to prevent strangers from eavesdropping on your internet activity. This includes money-grubbing ISPs, bored hackers at the airport, and spooks parked outside your house.
A VPN will not protect you against eavesdropping once your traffic leaves the VPN’s servers, nor will it protect the content of your email or other communications, which may still travel over unencrypted networks or be stored insecurely. To protect yourself elsewhere you should ensure you’re always connecting to sensitive websites over secure, HTTPS connections, and that you use encrypted messaging software, such as Signal, for secure communications.
When should I use a VPN?
At a bare minimum you should be using a VPN anytime you are connecting over unsecured, public wifi, such as you find at many coffeeshops or doctor’s offices. Those connections invite mischief and a VPN is the best way to use them safely.
You should also use one if you’re traveling in an authoritarian country like Turkey or Russia where the government is likely to be spying on everyone. In this case, you should use a VPN even when you’re on a trusted wifi network (like at a friend’s house), or on a cellular network using your own phone.
However, if you’re really concerned about privacy—especially in light of the recent US legal changes—then it’s completely reasonable to use a VPN all the time. Many VPN services offer unlimited bandwidth plans so you can simply leave them connected at all times.
Which VPN should I use?
VPN’s are easy to set up, but there are literally hundreds of them to choose from and not all are created equal. (People have gone to truly astonishing lengths to categorize the different features they offer.) Make sure you pick a VPN that works on all your devices and that has servers near you.
Another thing that is important to keep in mind is that VPNs are like lunch—there’s no such thing as a free one, despite what you may have read. The good ones, especially, cost real money to operate, because they require secure servers located all around the world. Most of the trustworthy VPN services charge around $50-100 a year, paid up front.
What devices can I use a VPN on?
Not all VPN services work everywhere and not all of them allow you to connect multiple devices simultaneously. There’s no point in choosing a VPN service that only works for you half the time. The popular service Cloak, for example, only works on Apple devices. Others, such as Tunnelbear, work across multiple platforms. Be sure to choose a VPN that works where you need it too.
Is using a VPN going to make my internet slow?
A good, paid VPN service will have a a large network of servers operating around the world. You’ll want to pick one that has a server near your home location so they you get the best speeds possible. For example, I’ve been using VyprVPN, which has a server in Austin, just a short hop from my home in East Texas. I don’t notice any slowdown, even when downloading large files.
If you travel a lot, you’ll also want to make sure that the service has servers in or near countries that you regularly visit, so that you don’t get stuck with dial-up speeds when you’re out of the country.
Won’t the VPN just sell my data?
If you just Google “VPN,” many of the services that appear will be offered by small software shops operating out of countries with questionable records on privacy. Those are not safe bets. Try to find a VPN made in a country with a good track record on privacy, such as Canada, or any part of Northern Europe. Whether or not you choose to trust US companies is entirely up to your read of recent American history, but they are undoubtedly better than many.