You may have heard or seen ads for software called a VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network. Can adding one of these to your computer or smartphone increase your security while using the internet?
A VPN forms a protected tunnel through which you send and receive all your data. Instead of transmitting information in the clear, it encrypts the connection between your computer or phone and the websites and other services you access. Nobody can see your data, and all of your activity is protected against online threats like viruses, hackers, and malware. That’s the theory anyway.
Because they add an extra level of processing to your work (encrypting and decrypting on the fly), people often worry they won’t be able to browse as fast as they would without a VPN. In the real world, with the many vagaries of internet speed in everyday usage, you are very likely not going to notice the small 5% or so hit on your devices’ performance.
Most, if not all VPN services offer installers for Windows and Mac computers, as well as iPhone and Android phones. If you do subscribe to a VPN, it makes sense to put it on all your internet-connected devices. There are dozens of VPNs to choose from, and the cost ranges from free to $120 a year. All of them are subscription-based, so this is an on-going cost. More expensive may not always correspond to higher quality.
Look for one that makes daily use easy, so that you don’t have to spend extra time turning the VPN on every day when you start to use your computer or phone. Other things to look for are a high level of encryption (usually expressed in number of bits; the larger the number the better), a service that doesn’t keep logs of your activity, and one that has multiple servers globally. This latter capability means you will be able to get a VPN connection established no matter where you are, or what the internet speed is on any particular day.
Over the years, several VPN providers have suffered security breaches so that the supposed added security of a VPN was negated. In these breaches, user IDs and passwords were stolen, so conceivably, bad guys could have impersonated a VPN user and stolen information. It’s a good idea to ask customer support if the firm has suffered any such losses in the past before signing up.
A VPN is best at protecting against the casual theft of information in public settings—say a coffee shop or hotel WiFi network. As a VPN encrypts all your traffic, an evildoer can’t see your actual user ID and password for your bank’s website. But a VPN can’t protect you against human error. If you click on a link in an email that turns out not to be a recipe for strawberry shortcake, but loads malware instead, a VPN will not save the day.