Virtual private networks (VPNs) are becoming increasingly important: they protect your online privacy by making it impossible for bad actors to intercept your data, by preventing sites from knowing where you are and by ensuring that nobody can snoop on you when you use a public Wi-Fi network.
Whether you’re a political activist or just want to watch Netflix when you’re on holiday, a VPN can be a really useful tool – and these days using one is as simple as installing an app.
Here are 6 times when a VPN is really handy to have.
When you’re using a hotspot
Public Wi-Fi isn’t safe. You’ve no idea who else is using the network, or if the network itself is even legitimate: it isn’t hard to set up a Wi-Fi network with a convincing-looking network ID in order to harvest people’s data. With a VPN it doesn’t matter how dodgy a network it might be or how many criminals might be hanging around: your VPN creates a secure encrypted tunnel so whatever you’re doing – online banking, uploading your world domination plans, fighting injustice – can’t be intercepted by bad actors.
When you’re working remotely or from home
Many companies use VPNs to ensure that remote workers and home workers can securely access the same corporate IT systems they would use in the office. And it works the other way too: you can securely access your home network when you’re not there.
When you don’t want to be watched
Most of us have curtains at home. We don’t have them because we’re up to anything dodgy; we have them because we don’t want strangers staring in our windows when we’re watching The Great British Bake-Off. VPNs serve a similar purpose when we’re online: they enable us to go about our online business without being tracked and logged by the likes of advertising networks. You don’t need to be a crime lord or a supervillain to want to protect your privacy.
When you need to stay anonymous
It’s not just about evading advertising networks and other privacy invaders. In some parts of the world, posting online can be dangerous: for example in Vietnam, posting criticism of the government can land you in prison; in Saudi Arabia you can be imprisoned and then deported for posting that you support LGBT+ rights; in Egypt the authorities use the internet and social media apps to identify, entrap and arrest LGBT+ people, with activists in the country warning LGBT+ people not to use any apps that use geolocation. A VPN can be a crucial part of protecting people’s privacy and free speech in countries that don’t want people to have either.
When your ISP throttles things
Some ISPs analyse customers’ network activity in order to prioritise particular kinds of traffic, and that can mean data-hungry services can be throttled some or all of the time. A VPN can help with that: all your traffic looks identical. It’s worth mentioning that a VPN can’t address all kinds of ISP throttling, though: if your ISP simply limits per-customer bandwidth at specific times, your VPN can’t get round that.
When you’re travelling
We’ll admit, it’s not a big issue right now with so many travel restrictions. But during more normal times streaming and downloadable entertainment services have livened up many a dull work trip or amused the kids when rain stops play. Many such services are geoblocked and won’t work if your IP address says you aren’t in your home country. A VPN solves that, and also enables you to use websites that may be geoblocked when you travel to more repressive countries (for example Facebook is banned in China).