When you connects to a website, the data that gets sent and received from your computer goes into your Internet Service Provider’s (also known as ISP) network, to the website’s server, and back to your computer again. Since the information is traveling through the ISP’s network, the ISP is able to see every website that you visited. A Virtual Private Network (or VPN) prevents this from happening. A VPN encrypts the data before it leaves your computer, then decrypts it after it passes through your ISP’s network, but before it reaches the website’s server. Since the data, which includes what website is being accessed, is encrypted, your ISP can’t see it.
Why is this relevant? Why talk about it now? Just over a week ago, the US congress passed a bill that lets ISP’s “spy” on users’ internet traffic (sort of). This bill reversed a landmark FCC rule that requires ISP’s to ask customers for their explicit permission before handing over user data to advertisers and other third parties. Technically, ISP’s could already see users’ internet traffic, but this bill makes it legal without permission. However, there are limitations to what they can see. Most modern websites use encryption (https instead of http). Although ISP’s can see what sites their users are on, they don’t know what their users are doing on that site. They cannot tell the difference between a user shopping for clothes or a user shopping for a new TV. However, this still leaves many people with discomfort, knowing that their ISP can see what sites they are browsing. VPN services encrypt this data, preventing ISP’s from gaining access to it.
So is a VPN is the perfect solution? Sadly not. VPNs cannot always be trusted. Many VPN services keep logs of the sites their users visit, defeating the point of using them as a way to circumvent your traffic being tracked. While choosing a VPN, make sure to take into consideration aspects such as connection speeds, logging, and pricing. I personally use a VPN service called Ivacy. They claim to not keep logs, and their speeds are more than satisfactory. Overall, I would recommend it. Another great VPN service is TunnelBear. They also do not keep logs of user data, and free users can get up to 500 megabytes per month of data.
VPN services’ other significant strength is the ability to circumvent government censorship, geo-blocked content, or internet filters. In authoritarian states such as China or North Korea, governments often restrict access to certain websites as a form of censorship. The filtering systems put in place by these regimes work by monitoring the data their ISP’s pick up then blocking websites as they like. By using a VPN, internet users in those countries are able to circumvent those measures, since the ISP’s aren’t able to tell which websites are being visited. This can also work in places where internet is filtered, like a school or workplace, because of the same principle – the filters aren’t able to read the encrypted data, and consequently aren’t able to block the traffic. However, be careful of using a VPN for this purpose, as it may not be allowed in your school or workplace.
So, is a VPN for you? It depends on a couple key questions: Are you nervous about your internet security or are you being blocked from websites you would like to visit? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, a VPN may be right for you. Search around and learn about many different services so you can make sure to get the best VPN for you. If you found an especially great VPN service, let other users know by posting its name in the comment section of this article. Happy safe internet browsing!