"What is a VPN? How do you use it? Is it necessary to have access to one?"
These questions have become common as VPN services aggressively promote their products to internet users.
So, What is it?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It acts as a virtual tunnel which allows you to send & receive secure internet traffic between your device and the VPN provider's servers. They do this by masking your IP address and encrypting your browsing data. Thus, your location, internet activity, messages, and browsing history are hidden from those who would use this info for monetary gain or malicious intent.
What it can do:
It can hide your location. For example, if the VPN service provider has a server in the US, you can use it to pretend you are accessing the web from the US to skirt around location based content-locks.
It secures data from the prying eyes of your service provider, government, and hackers.
It can secure data between your remote staff and your business servers.
It's a good tool for hiding your data on insecure networks (think free public Wi-Fi networks).
Data is only secure between your device and the VPN server. That's because data must still get from the VPN server to the requested service (e.g. Facebook or YouTube,) and that section of its journey will not be encrypted to the same level. This means it can easily be seen by governments and service providers in the region of the VPN server or the service being accessed.
Some VPN’s do what your service provider does: track your internet activity data and sell it for profit. In many cases your government has agreements with other authorities to share your data. So they could likely get your data if they really wanted to.
A VPN’s location obfuscation can sometimes cause issues with account security features (eg. Gmail), and your activity may be flagged as “suspicious”. This may not worry you if you are studiously keeping track of what locations you use through your VPN server. If this happens enough times though, you may not be able to tell the difference between your own activity and a real security breach.
Do I need a VPN?
You regularly use free public Wi-Fi networks at cafes, malls, airports etc.
You run a business and your remote staff need access to central file servers.
You need to get around location- based content locks.
Should I pay for one?
That depends. Do you already have an Antivirus? Many antivirus programs come bundled with a VPN service, so you could get both features for the price of one if you make use of this. Although these may have a usage-cap it should be sufficient for occasionally accessing free Wi-Fi.
Alternatively, you could pay for a sole VPN service. Keep in mind that your choice doesn’t have to be expensive, but you should check their speed rank and the terms and conditions as to whether they are recording and selling your data before committing to one.