VPN's are basically a set of servers that you connect to through your internet service provider (ISP). Once you have established a connection with your VPN, a process known as tunneling, the servers act as your virtual home on the internet. It’s as if you moved yourself into a secure office space without actually moving at all.
As you surf the web from this secure space, all of the data you send and receive is encrypted, offering you a good degree of privacy. Once tunneled in, your ISP—or even certain spy agencies—can’t tell what information you’re browsing or downloading.
Why use a VPN?
Obviously, security is one of the main reasons to always use a VPN to access the internet. Because all of your data is encrypted once tunneled, if a hacker were trying to intercept your browsing activity, say, while you were entering your credit card number to make an online purchase, the encryption would stymie their efforts. That’s why it’s a particularly good idea to use VPNs in public settings like coffee shops and airports.
The second major reason to go with a VPN is the closely related issue of privacy. If you like to surf for garden gnomes made in the late 19th century in Gräfenroda, Germany, that’s no one else’s business, right? By encrypting your data, what you search for, what you say in forums, and what you watch through streaming is entirely your own business.
It’s important to remember that a VPN will protect the data you transmit from your computer to the VPN hub, but it won’t necessarily prevent you from being tracked with cookies and other web trackers.
“VPN provides encryption to network traffic,” Ximning Ou from the University of Southern Florida told us. “It ensures the communication cannot be easily eavesdropped/tampered with by adversaries. It does not impact application features like cookies. So yes cookies can still be set on your browser if you are tunneled through VPN.”
To avoid such tracking efforts, it’s advisable to conduct all your surfing with your browser set on incognito or private mode. You may also want to consider installing tracking-blocking software like ghostery.
A third substantial consideration for using a VPN is the fact that it can give you a virtual location. Worried about the feds coming to knock on your door due to your unnatural fascination with garden gnomes? They won’t actually be able to link your IP address with your physical address. Want to play in an online poker room but it’s not allowed from your country? Then simply tunnel into a country where such activity is sanctioned and you’ll be good to go (all in). Looking to stream that film that was banned by your government? It’s probably not banned everywhere, so find a country where it’s viewable, tunnel in, and break out the popcorn.
This can also work the opposite way. If you’re traveling far from your home country, but you want to watch a show that’s only available on a provider such as Netflix back home, you can tunnel there to view it. The same would hold true for banking and other websites that might not be accessible anywhere but the motherland.
Of course, while tunneling into a VPN may let you get around the laws and restrictions of your country, don’t forget that you are still bound by them. VPN usage doesn’t make you invisible, just anonymous. So if you’re doing a lot of suspicious surfing and you catch the eye of a government agency, with enough resources and time, they will likely be able to find you.