What a Virtual Private Network is and how it can protect your data and your privacy.
Data privacy and activity tracking are in the public consciousness more than ever before, but it's not always easy to know how to keep yourself safe whenever you connect to the web. One of the most effective security measures is to set up a VPN across your devices.
As we'll explain below, a VPN - or Virtual Private Network - creates a private, encrypted tunnel between you and the web, making it much harder for hackers, governments, ISPs and the person sitting on the next table in your coffee shop to see what you're doing.
The basics of a VPN
Simply put, VPNs let you access one network from another. Rather than connecting to the internet directly, you go through an intermediary, which means the sites you're visiting and the apps you're using don't necessarily know where you are or who you are (though don't assume VPNs always give you complete anonymity, because they don't).
They originally began as an option for businesses, letting employees log into secure company networks even while they were sat at home. Now they're becoming increasingly popular for ordinary users too.
There's a certain amount of trust here, because you're routing your internet traffic through the VPN provider's network, and so you need to pick a reliable one (see below for more details on this). You still need your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get online, but all your ISP can see is your VPN connection - not where you go after that.
It's not quite the same as being anonymous though: your VPN will know who you are because you've logged in using your username and password. Facebook will know who you are for the same reason, and so on. Think of a VPN as a way of bolstering privacy and security, rather than a method for making you completely invisible online.
How a VPN protects you
One of the key benefits of a VPN, and the reason many people rely on one, is the extra security it gives you - particularly on public Wi-Fi networks like those you're going to find in coffee shops or hotels.
Everything sent from and received by your computer or mobile device is encrypted by your VPN provider, so even if someone happens to be listening in, they won't be able to make sense of the data they get. This is probably the number one reason to get a VPN installed, especially if you do a lot of travelling.
You can use VPNs to spoof your location too, which makes them popular with users who want to stream content or buy software from other regions in the world (though the likes of Netflix have started clamping down on viewers who use a VPN in this way).
There's also the issue of ISP and government snooping (check your local laws for details). While a VPN doesn't completely guarantee that the authorities can't check what you get up to online, it makes their job much harder.
Choosing a VPN
We won't go into a detailed breakdown of competing VPN services here, but the good news is there are plenty of them to choose from.
As with any software you set up on your computer, take your time with your research - look for companies with a solid online reputation, who've been in business a long time and come recommended by other users and the tech experts who know what they're talking about (at least in theory).
While you can find free VPNs out there, it's usually a good idea to sacrifice a few pennies a month for a paid-for service. As with anything else in life, you get what you pay for, and the premium VPNs typically offer a more stable, secure, reliable service.
Among the VPNs we've had good experiences with in the past, and that come highly recommended by others, are IPVanish VPN, NordVPN, AirVPN, StrongVPN, and KeepSolid VPN, but that's by no means an exhaustive list.
Look for VPNs that support the OpenVPN protocol, have a good range of clients and are easy to set up - as well as those that are competitively priced, of course. Many claim to keep user logging down to a minimum, but always check the small print (in the end, you're really just trusting your VPN provider to do what it says it will do).
Setting up a VPN
We can't walk you through the setup process for every VPN out there, but we will show you the method for one - essentially they're all pretty similar (and they all usually list simple setup as one of their selling points, so there's nothing difficult to work through).
Here we're choosing AirVPN, which will set you back €7 (£6) a month or €54 (£46) a year. When you've registered for an AirVPN account, and specified which plan you want to go for and how you want to pay for it, you're then ready to configure the service.
Choose your platform (Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android) and you get step-by-step instructions for getting connected. For desktops and laptops the easiest option is to install the client software and connect through that.
Once the software is up and running you need to choose a server to connect to or let AirVPN choose for you - after the connection is completed the AirVPN icon turns green to let you know everything's working normally.
Getting online through AirVPN on Android and iOS devices is slightly more complicated but again there are step-by-step instructions - it's a question of opening up your mobile browser and visiting AirVPN's servers to establish a secure connection.
Header image: IPVanish
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