A VPN can serve a variety of purposes. The acronym stands for “virtual private network,” and at its most basic level a VPN is a tool that provides a secure internet experience. A VPN works by encrypting your internet connection, by routing your internet traffic across a network and through a server owned by your VPN provider. A VPN increases your privacy online, prevents ISP tracking and makes it safe to use public wi-fi. It also allows users to access blocked websites and access censored content. When it comes to selecting a VPN, the best VPNs out there are paid products – not free ones - as they offer better security and quality of service. VPNs work across a wide variety of desktop and mobile devices, and are installed via a VPN app. Keep reading to learn more about what a VPN does in greater detail, who a VPN protects you from (and what these parties want with your information), and where to use your VPN.
While a VPN and the end-to-end encryption it provides are extremely powerful and important tools to protect yourself online, a VPN is not a magical wand that can solve every privacy threat possible out there - although we wish some such tool did exist. There are a lot of misleading claims out there about what a VPN can do and some confusion in the marketplace in general, so we’ll also talk about what a VPN can’t do.
What Does A VPN Do?
At the most basic level, a VPN does two main things:
- Encrypts your internet connection
- Changes your IP address
Encrypting your connection secures it, and a VPN protects your network traffic from anyone who has the ability to see it (we’ll go over who this “anyone” is below).
Changing your IP address allows you to mask or hide your IP address, so the location tied to your real IP address cannot be identified.
Who Does a VPN Protect You From?
A VPN protects your data in transit. This means it can protect you from a few different people or companies that may be trying to sneak a peek at what you’re doing online or collect some of your valuable data.
- Your ISP: Primarily, a VPN protects you from your Internet Service Provider (or the internet service provider of the business you are patronizing or place you are using the internet from).
- Companies that own a network: For example, your workplace or a Starbucks café
- Hackers: If you are using public or untrusted wi-fi, a VPN prevents “bad actors” who intercept your connection from seeing anything (they can’t make sense of any information even if they do manage to intercept your connection, because it's encrypted).
What Do They Want with Your Information?
What might an ISP or a McDonald's want to do with your information? Unfortunately, the possibilities are numerous:
- Use it to throttle your traffic. If an ISP wants, they can decide to slow down your internet traffic based upon your activity. Say you watch Netflix for 12 hours/day and use a lot of bandwidth up, maybe they don’t like that. As a result, they may choose to throttle you – or slow you down – intentionally.
- Capitalize on it in their own ad networks. Many ISPs run massive ad networks. This means your data is very valuable to them and they can use it to target you with advertising which in turn leads to increased profits. So, they are getting money from you for providing your internet service and by capitalizing on the information they learn about your online habits.
- Sell it to other advertisers. Many ISPS also sell data to other advertisers or advertising networks for a profit. This practice is also common among applications you may trust, and when you sign up for free service of any sort.
- Use it for negative purposes. When it comes to those hackers out there, more than likely they want your data for some purpose that involves making money off the information or trying to use it for a less-than-wholesome reason.
Tell Me Again, How Does the VPN Protect Me?
If you’re using a VPN, you can stop your internet service provider, network owner or any malicious person who tries to intercept your connection from seeing what you are doing online.
With a VPN connection, NO ONE CAN SEE:
- Your real IP address (nor the location associated with it)
- Your location (your city or street)
- What sites you visit
- How long you visit the sites
- What applications you use
- Contents of communications you send or passwords you type in
OK! I’m Convinced I Need to Secure My Connection. But Where Should I Use a VPN?
In a word, everywhere! There is little downside to using a VPN each and every time you connect to the internet, although depending on your goal you may not need to have your VPN on 24/7.
Why Use A VPN In A Coffee Shop, Hotel, [Insert Public Place Here]
If you’re using wi-fi anywhere other than your home, the security of the network is likely in question. The network might be unsecured, or even if it is secured it might have a pretty bad password (we’re talking about café123, here). This means it’s easy for hackers to gain access and do whatever nefarious things they want.
It also means the company, IE Starbucks, could be watching your activity while you’re using their network. In fact, when you clicked “connect” and that little check box down there, you likely gave them explicit permission to do so.
There is also a chance that network titled “BEST CAFE” is not even for the BEST CAFE, but a fake network made by a malicious person to trick internet users and collect their details or spy on them. These networks can go by many names – honeypots, evil twins – but they are always bad news.
Why Use a VPN At Home
While you shouldn’t have to worry about security as much if you own your home network and have configured it properly, you may still want to leave your VPN on. Why, you may ask? To prevent your ISP from collecting information on your activity, as we reviewed above. Or, if you live in a shared space with roommates or wi-fi shared across an entire building, the VPN would be a good idea still.
Why Use a VPN During Travel
Just like the coffee shop example, networks at hotels, airports, train stations or any other travel-related spots are often of unknown origin or trustworthiness - hence the name of our public wi-fi protection feature, formerly called "connect on untrusted wi-fi".
Using a VPN while traveling also ensures you can access the same internet experience as you do at home, and bypass any censorship that exists. Censorship is another distinct VPN use case, which we'll delve into in another piece.
What Things CAN’T a VPN Do, Then?
As you can see, a VPN can accomplish a lot! But it does have some limitations. Below is some information on the things a VPN will not protect you against. (Good news is, there are other ways to protect your privacy in these instances).
A VPN Cannot:
- Make you anonymous online. As we outline in detail in one of our most popular pieces, I Am Anonymous When I Use a VPN: 10 Myths Debunked, a VPN cannot make you anonymous online. It's impossible to be completely anonymous on the internet, regardless of what tools you are using. Be wary of marketing claims that state otherwise.
- Hide your geolocation on a mobile devices with GPS capabilities. A VPN can mask your location on the internet and on a computer where your location is tied to your IP address, but it has no interaction with the GPS function on your phone or tablet. Thus, it’s not possible to use a VPN to totally hide where you are if you’re using a device with location services.
- Stop Facebook from seeing what you visit on Facebook. If you’re using a VPN, Facebook will not be able to see where you’re coming from (your location and IP) or who your ISP is, but they can still see a lot. You’re logged in to their platform, and they can see what you click on – other profiles, articles, whatever. Again, this is a service you’ve logged in to and given permissions to, and it does not relate to using a VPN. The same is true of many other social media platforms.
As you can see, many privacy threats involve a voluntary choice to sign up for a service, or perhaps an implicit opt-in - where you have given your permission to be tracked or for your data to be collected in exchange for using the free service or platform. There are ways to combat these practices, such as choosing not to use the service or changing your settings. When combined with other smart choices like using a VPN, you can make huge strides towards a very private online experience.
Why Are There So Many Faulty Claims Out There?
Are you confused? Do you swear you saw an ad saying a VPN would make you ANNONYOMOUS online or offer TOTAL PRIVACY or stop all companies from tracking you? You’re not losing your mind; you probably did see such an ad. There are a lot of false claims out there, advertising things at simply are not true or even possible.
Some claims are not malicious, but simply over-generalized statements that are either intended to appeal to a wide audience or explain how a VPN can help internet users without diving into the intricacies or technical details. Others, however, are false on purpose, intended to mislead people about what a VPN can do to in an attempt to sell more products. These are the dangerous ones, as they often wind up putting your privacy at risk and violating your trust.
At VyprVPN we’ve always believed in transparency above all else, and aim to represent ourselves accurately. This is why we are independently audited as no-log provider – and why we create pieces of content like this one to help educate internet users.