Privacy, Security

Should I get a VPN?

April 6, 2022 / My Data Removal Staff
a picture of a laptop connected to a VPN

There is a lot of talk these days about VPNs. Most of us have seen or heard ads about VPNs. Some of us have had to connect to a VPN for work to get access to files or systems.

This article will explain the main benefits and drawbacks of VPNs so you can determine if a VPN makes sense for your situation.

Definition

VPN stands for virtual private network. It is a tool that can give you greater online privacy and anonymity. It basically encrypts and routes your internet traffic through a new network, making it so your online actions are very difficult to trace back to you.

What a VPN does

A VPN masks your traffic from your ISP (internet service provider). When using a VPN, Comcast, Google Fiber, Verizon, or whoever you use, won’t be able to see what sites you are visiting or what you are doing online. Normally, they can at least see what sites or services you are connecting to and how much data you are exchanging. When connected to a VPN, they can only see when and how much data you are exchanging with the VPN, protecting your identity and online activities.

A VPN hides your true IP address from websites you visit. Websites will see the new IP address that the VPN company gave you, which cannot be tracked back to you without the VPN company’s logs (reputable VPN companies don’t log or frequently delete their logs). VPN companies likely share the IP address they give you with hundreds or thousands of other individuals. This makes it much harder for websites to single you out.

A VPN encrypts your traffic so it can’t be snooped when on public WiFi. The problem with public WiFi is it is possible to set up a fake network and snoop on the data going through your network. A virus or program on the network could also track what you are doing. Connecting to a VPN encrypts all your traffic so all your snooper can see is how much data you are transferring, the ISP of your VPN, and little else.

VPNs can help get around geo restrictions (streaming). If you live outside of jurisdictions that have content that is limited based on your location, then a VPN can help. Websites are trying hard to limit the ways around their restrictions, but it still can be done with most services. We do not condone using a VPN for this as it can violate the terms of service for some streaming services.

What a VPN doesn’t do

A VPN doesn’t make you anonymous online. It helps to anonymize you, but it is difficult to be 100% anonymous. Browser fingerprinting, VPN company logs, and your browsing activity can still do a lot to give away who you are.

If you log into services online, then those websites will still know it’s you. Your browser cookies will still show who you are, even if you have a new IP address. A VPN only gives you a new IP address. The VPN encrypts your data, essentially masking what you are doing so your ISP and/or network cannot see what you are doing.

Where to have your VPN

There are a few options when considering how to set up a VPN. You can set up the devices you use (phone, pc, etc.) with a VPN app that you can turn on or off at will. This is very convenient if some sites block VPNs (banks, some online merchants, streaming services, some government services, etc.).

Some routers allow you to configure a VPN connection that is always on by default. However, most routers have a hard time handling high volumes of traffic through a VPN.

You can set up a VPN on a physical firewall that you then connect your router to. This is the most secure option. You can also configure your settings to block all connections if the VPN connection goes down (essentially a kill switch if it can’t connect to the VPN). You might need a different setting or another router if you want some devices to be able to connect to your ISP without a VPN. pfSense makes open-source software for physical firewalls. Netgate is one of many companies that sells physical firewall devices.

When combined, a VPN on your firewall device or router and a VPN app on your device gives you the most protection.

Not all VPNs are equal

Some VPNs log the sites you visit and bundle and sell your data – the same thing your ISP can do. This still hides you from the sites you visit, but still leaves you exposed. If law enforcement wanted your internet history, they could get it from a VPN company that kept all its logs.

All VPN companies need to make money. It is helpful to keep in mind that VPN companies’ purpose is to make money. If you go for the cheapest option, they might be tempted to try to make some money on the side by selling your data.

Reputable VPN companies delete logs frequently and truly value your privacy. We haven’t tried or audited all VPN services, but there are a few that stand out as truly privacy-friendly services.

VPNs can be annoying sometimes

Running all you do online through a VPN can slow down your speeds. This isn’t that big of a deal for browsing, but depending on your online activities, this could pose a problem.

Some sites block VPN traffic. This can be annoying if you are constantly having to turn off your VPN and having to remember to turn it back on. A dedicated IP address from a VPN company (meaning an IP address that no one else uses except you, instead of you using shared IPs) could solve some of the need for this, but always using a dedicated IP address is bad for privacy since you will be the only person the IP address is connected to making your online activity more trackable.

You will have to do captchas when on a VPN. This is because some people do sketchy things while on a VPN. Captchas are annoying and slow down your browsing experience. A dedicated IP address would likely reduce captchas, but at the cost of some privacy.

How much is your privacy worth?

Not everyone needs a VPN. Do you?

VPNs are require more work. VPNs require an extra step and some know-how. Are you willing to deal with the inconvenience of a VPN? You will probably at least want a VPN on your pc and your phone. Putting a VPN on a router or firewall device can be technical.

Who are you hiding from? It depends on who you are trying to hide from. If you are fine with your ISP knowing what sites you visit and your sites knowing your approximate location, then don’t get a VPN. If you want to be tracked less and be able to visit sites somewhat anonymously, then a VPN is great. If you want to hide what you are doing from online advertisers and trackers then a VPN can help (especially if you combine your VPN with something like Firefox Containers, private windows, or if you frequently delete cookies from your device. If you want to hide from the NSA or other state actors, then you have bigger problems.

Do you use public WiFi? If you often use public WiFi, then you should strongly consider getting a VPN.

VPNs you should consider using cost money. A VPN service isn’t too costly and helps with your digital privacy and security. Most are around $5 or $10 a month. Are you willing to pay the price? We do not recommend free VPNs. With free, you get what you pay for; those companies have to make money somehow, it is likely by selling your data.

Who do we recommend?

There are plenty of reputable companies that are reasonable priced that will do a great job. All the following recommendations are highly rated and great options.

Here is a more thorough review of VPNs. We haven’t tested different VPNs as much as these guys say they have.

Conclusion

We hope this has been valuable in helping you determine if a VPN would make sense for your situation. Consider when a VPN might be a good choice, such as using public WIFI, and start there. Remember, privacy is a marathon, not a sprint.

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