The purpose of this article is to share a beginners guide to VPNs. The need for personal cybersecurity has grown by leaps and bounds over the last ten years. News headlines about big data breaches at major websites are a frequent occurrence. On top of that, personal data is being collected by largely used websites like social media sites who are trying to learn as much as they can about the digital behavior of consumers. The types of data that websites keep include IP addresses, names, phone numbers, other websites visited and even more sensitive data like birth dates and social security numbers.
What is a VPN?
Every beginners guide to VPNs should define that a VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN is a technology that encrypts internet traffic. It does this by encrypting all traffic from an endpoint through software from one location to another. This location can be a PC, mobile phone, or home router. The traffic flows encrypted from the endpoint to the VPN provider and then out to a destination, such as a website. A VPN encapsulates and encrypts sensitive data such as a search term or website destination.
Why do I need a VPN?
The number one reason for having a VPN is to protect your personal private information. Your browsing habits, IP, mobile phone number, mobile app usage, and your online shopping carts are all being tracked by Internet Service Providers, search engines, social media sites, and data brokers.
According to the FTC report dated October of 2021 several Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in their study have engaged in targeted affiliate marketing campaigns. Internet Service Providers will buy personal data from data brokers and will combine it with their subscriber data to create supercookies. ISPs add data-tracking tags to PCs, mobile devices and other technology in your home network to collect data and build profiles about you. They can then sell this data back to data brokers or use it for direct advertisement, sending you texts, emails, and displaying content they think is good for you in collaboration with other technology services.
An example of this data collection and advertisement strategy would be you searching for a Christmas present for your spouse and the next time you turn on Hulu, there is an advertisement for that product. That is an example of the collaboration between ISPs and data brokers and therefore the need for a VPN.
The more severe cases of these data collection practices include religion, sexual orientation, race, gender, political views, economic status, and search terms.
The most troubling aspect about supercookies is that this type of information can get into the wrong hands in the event of a data breach at any of these data brokers. If a hacker gets their hands on this type of data, it is very likely to be used against people through blackmail and other malicious actions.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN protects sensitive data such as search terms, browsing habits, downloads, and any other internet related activity from the ISP. The only thing the ISP sees is a connection to the VPN provider – it is not able to see the contents of that connection. Nor is an ISP able to add data-tracking tags to your online activity. An ISP cannot insert your mobile phone number as a tag in order to collaborate with other data brokers and advertisers. A VPN is a complete block against an intrusive ISP trying to harvest personal data.
A VPN protects you from search engines by masking your IP address. The IP address becomes the IP address of the VPN provider, so the only thing a search engine sees is browsing requests coming from a VPN provider, not from your home network.
A VPN will also protect you while on a public WiFi network. A common WiFi attack is to spoof a hotspot, routing all wireless traffic in an area (like a coffee shop) to a fake wireless access point. The purpose of this attack is to get passwords and other sensitive information from users at the coffee shop. A VPN, however will encrypt the traffic so a hacker would not be able to access your data, whether that be on your mobile device or laptop.
What devices should have a VPN?
The best device to use a VPN service is on your home router. This way, all the devices that are connected to your home network will connect to the internet through an encrypted line. If your router is using the VPN service, then you don’t need to worry about putting a VPN software agent on your desktop computer. If, for some reason you cannot add the VPN service to your router, then you should protect your desktop computer with the VPN service as well.
The next place VPN services should protect are mobile devices like laptops and smartphones. These devices are often traveling and using a multitude of different ISPs internet connections as well as the cell phone carrier connection. By adding a VPN through an app, you won’t need to worry about sensitive data being tracked on your mobile phone or laptop.
How much does a VPN cost?
VPN services range anywhere from $3 to $11 per month depending on the subscription plan you choose.
Should I get a free VPN?
With VPN services you get what you pay for. You used to be able to get the internet for free with Net Zero but the speeds were horrible and there were a ton of ads. That’s how free VPN’s work. Bandwidth is limited, in most cases you have ads, and the free VPN service may be logging your activity and selling your data which is exactly what you don’t want with a VPN service.