It used to be the case that only criminals and outlaws performing illegal activity on the dark web would use virtual private networks (VPNs) because they had to hide their illegal activity from the authorities. Unfortunately, the world has changed a great deal since then.

These days, even when running a legitimate business, failing to guard your online browsing and communications can potentially lead to a breach of privacy at some point or another.

In an age when privacy and security have become a rare commodity, it’s important to pay attention to the tracks that you leave across the internet wherever you go online. You wouldn’t believe how much data about you is available, waiting to be found by the wrong type of people.

In this article, I’m going to:

  • Go over the basics of what a VPN does
  • Why it’s important
  • How you can use it to hide your identity and regain your privacy when going online

What Is a VPN?

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A VPN is software that you install on your desktop computer, mobile phone, tablet, router or, preferably, all of the above, which allows you to connect to the internet from remote geographic locations across the globe. By doing so, the VPN routes all of your online activity through secure, encrypted tunnels that keep your internet protocol (IP) address hidden and your identity anonymized.

Imagine walking around town with your full home address printed on the back of your shirt, with a map pinpointing your location so that anyone who sees you can know exactly where you live and how to get there. Sounds crazy? Well, that’s essentially what you are doing when you surf the internet without using a VPN.

Reasons to Use a VPN

The main reason to use a VPN is to hide your IP address. While it may look like a random string of numbers, your IP address actually says a lot about you.

IP addresses are used as a way for computers and other devices connected to the internet to identify one another, much like your name or Social Security number. They hold information about the name and geographic location of your internet service provider (ISP), including their city, ZIP code, and area code.

Since IP addresses are determined by the network your device is connected to, they also hold data about other devices that are operating on the same network, revealing information like your broadband speed, connected devices, amount of data packets sent and received, and other pieces of information that may not mean much to nontechies but can be exploited by those with malicious intent to spy on you.

While your IP address doesn’t reveal your personal home address, leaving it exposed makes it easy for hackers and spy bots to piece together information about your browsing activity and, ultimately, find out who you are and where you are.

One disclaimer: If your business assets are being targeted specifically by hackers or, if you already had malware infected your device, with no antivirus or other defenses in place, chances are they can bypass your VPN.

However, unless you’re managing a lucrative business, the majority of attacks you’ll experience will most likely be automated ones and, for that, a VPN does a good job at keeping your data anonymous. After all, it’s very hard to target someone if you don’t know who or where they are.

When To Use a VPN

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It’s a good idea to keep your VPN on at all times. However, there are certain scenarios where it becomes crucial for your privacy and safety. For example, if you often spend time browsing the web while using public Wi-Fi networks in cafes or during commutes on public transport, the owners of those public networks might learn a little too much about you. Using a VPN while connected to a public network is crucial if you want to prevent them from snooping around your data.

That said, your home Wi-Fi network can also pose a risk to privacy as many ISPs sell user data to third parties who have a commercial interest in your internet browsing habits.

The Ways a VPN Works To Protect You

When you connect to the internet from a remote server location, it hides your real IP address and grants you a fake one instead. The fake IP address is determined by the server from which your VPN is connected. For example, if you choose to connect from a server in Slovakia, your visible IP address would appear to be located in Slovakia.

If you’re reading these lines and wondering why anyone would be interested in your browsing habits, remember this: The majority of bad actors who take advantage of your private information aren’t doing it for malicious purposes, but for commercial ones.

For example, Google and Facebook track the websites that you visit to learn about your online browsing and shopping habits. Then, they use that information to help their advertisers target you for their sales campaigns.

Likewise, almost every website you visit tracks information, such as pages you visited, buttons you click, and time spent on each page. Collecting this kind of information helps them to improve their marketing and engagement so that they can curate personalized content and target you on their future campaigns.

If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you searched for something online and started seeing advertisements about the exact thing you searched for, it’s probably because your IP address was exposed. With a VPN, that level of personalized targeting becomes almost impossible.

Other Reasons To Consider Using a VPN

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Another popular use for VPN might be when you want to use an online service or watch a TV broadcast that is only available in a certain country, either due to legislation or in an attempt to control traffic overload.

Many websites, TV channels, video-on-demand (VOD), and gaming services, in particular, limit the locations from which a person can access their services. Other websites might give you a localized version of their service, which may look slightly different depending on where you are in the world. By connecting you through a remote server, a VPN allows you to bypass those limitations and use the same familiar platforms wherever you might be.

For example, if you’re an Indian expatriate living in the United States, you can connect your VPN from a remote server in India and watch your favorite TV shows that would otherwise be unavailable outside of India.

What To Look for When Choosing a VPN

A variety of VPN features differentiate them from one another. Some important ones to look out for include:

  • Activity log: Avoid VPNs that log your activity as they contradict the entire purpose of using a VPN
  • The number of devices covered by the same VPN account: Decent VPNs usually cover three to five devices
  • Bandwidth, connection speed, and disconnection rates: These vary between providers, with free VPNs usually being the slowest and least reliable
  • Number of server locations from which you can connect to the VPN: The more servers you have, the less likely you are to experience server overload
  • Secure, up to date internet protocols, including IPv4 and IPv6
  • Support team availability, whether via chat, phone, email, or remote control assistance
  • Kill switch to turn off your internet whenever the VPN times out
  • Pricing: Generally speaking, you get what you pay for

VPNs are a relatively easy way to improve your security posture without needing to deploy sophisticated systems or hire cybersecurity professionals. They may not solve all your problems or protect you from targeted attacks, but they can go a long way in maintaining your privacy, whether as an individual or as a business.

If you’re looking to better your defenses against snoopers, hackers, and identity thieves or avoid annoying ads, now is the time to join millions of internet users who have already made an informed choice and get your VPN set up immediately.

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