Most of the internet is unencrypted. That means that in general your activity on the internet is about as secure as sending your mail on postcards. On your browser, there are things you can do to minimize your exposure, like use https. But https is not available on every site. Even some big sites, like Instagram, don’t use https. And this still leaves apps and other services exposed. So what can you do? Protect yourself with Virtual Private Networking (VPN).
What is VPN?
Going with the mail simile, a VPN is like writing your letter in code, putting it in a security envelope, mailing it to a trusted friend, and then having that friend decode it and mail it back out to its intended recipient. That was probably a bad example for me to use, because it makes it sound really complicated. But in practice, to use a VPN, you click connect on your client, enter your username and password, and the rest is automated. What happens is that the VPN client encrypts your traffic. This encrypted traffic is tunneled (which is like putting your letter in a security envelope) to the service’s server. From this point, all your traffic to the internet looks like it’s coming from this server.
Why should you use this?
Let’s start from the beginning. Why would you want your traffic encrypted? The simple answer is to keep it private from prying eyes. Who might these eyes be? It could be your ISP, who likes to make sure you’re not sharing. ISPs have the ability to decide which sites or services are blocked to your connection, but you can go where ever you want right under their noses with a VPN. On public wifi, it could be anyone spying on you. There is a cornucopia of freely available applications which allow people to listen in on unencrypted traffic. Just search for FireSheep or FaceNiff. From there, a hacker could access your social media profiles, email, et cetera and essentially become you on the internet. If you use public wifi, this should be a huge concern. While you could use https to subvert these hacking apps, as I said before, many sites do not use https.
From here, you might be asking why one would want his or her traffic coming from somewhere else, whether a different city, state, or country. In terms of privacy, it hides your IP address, which sites and criminals can use to track you from place to place. In addition, I have found the ability to choose where a connection comes from to be one of the most convenient features of VPNs. A guy I know was excited about a video game that was being released online at midnight. The problem was that he was on Mountain Time, which is two hours behind Eastern Time. So if he had a way to connect through the Eastern Time zone, he would be able to download the game two hours earlier. How else is this helpful? Georestricted content (content you can only access from certain places in the world) can easily be viewed just by connecting to a VPN there. I have been able to watch news from other countries which is only available to people in those countries by using a VPN. Many Americans may not know this, but Pandora is only available in the United States. However, if you travel out of the country or live out of the country, you can access it through a VPN.
What makes a good VPN?
-For anonymity, you want one that accepts anonymous payments (like Bitcoin). And one that will allow you to use a disposable email address to sign up.
-Doesn’t keep logs. Logged data can later be retrieved, which defeats the whole privacy aspect of a VPN. Free VPNs always log data. Find a good paid one that doesn’t keep logs.
-Has multiple servers around the world, especially in countries that are good on internet privacy. Swiss servers are some of the best.
-Good tech support is a plus.
So that’s it. Believe me, once you use a VPN, you’ll never want to be without it. The peace of mind on public wifi, the convenience of circumventing georestrcitions, and the knowledge that it will be much more difficult for criminals and website to track your moves across the internet.