A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a piece of software that allows you to surf the internet safely and privately.

A VPN can also unblock restricted content by making your device appear to be in a different location, and it encrypts your data, meaning that your internet activity is kept hidden from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and others.

With the now law, controversial Assistance and Access bill, the number of Australians using VPNs has grown massively.However, before you start using a VPN, it’s important that you know how they work and what benefits and limitations they offer.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN constructs a secure virtual tunnel between your device and a VPN server. Data transmitted from your device to the VPN server is encrypted, making it undecipherable in transit.

The VPN server un-encrypts that data and passes you to the website or app that you’re trying to connect to. In other words, you take a diversion via the VPN server before getting to the target page, though this doesn’t tend to affect your connection speed.

VPN

Without a VPN, your ISP can track every site accessed while you surf the internet – they can see where you go out for dinner, what medical symptoms you may have and where you apply for mortgages,work and school.

Benefits of a VPN

1. Encryption & Privacy

As a VPN connection encrypts your data, your ISP will not be able to view your activity online.

There are various types of encryption and transmission methods, known as ‘VPN protocols.’ These vary in effectiveness but, as long as you stay clear of PPTP protocols, you should stay safe online.

Given the differing security levels of various encryption methods, it’s worth doing some research about different VPN providers before you make a decision. There are over one thousand different VPN providers, and they don’t all offer the same level of protection.

2. Restricted Content

Using a VPN allows you to access otherwise restricted content from around the world. That’s because your IP address becomes that of the VPN server, which can be based almost anywhere on Earth.

VPN

With a click of a button you can change your virtual location so that you can access American Netflix, BBC Iplayer and more, wherever you are.

However, in recent years there’s been a crackdown from these companies to stop people geo-spoofing, and they now identify and block some VPN remote servers. Many of the best-rated VPN providers can still perform this action.

3. Public Wi-Fi Safety

From public transport and coffee shops to libraries and university campuses,public Wi-Fi has become an integral part of our digital lives. However, despite its convenience, it leaves you at risk from several threats.

Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) attacks are particularly prevalent on unsecured public networks and can lead to the loss of your sensitive data, including online banking details. As a VPN provides end-to-end encryption, your data will remain secure even while using a public Wi-Fi network.

Limitations of a VPN

Understanding VPN Anonymity

Before you download a VPN, it’s important to remember that they don’t make you completely anonymous online. When visiting a website while connected to a VPN server, those websites will take note, or log,the IP address of the VPN server.

Your VPN provider may also take note of your real IP address as well as the date and time you connected and disconnected from their server. Anyone with access to both pieces of data (unlikely but a government could access it) could potentially cross-reference them to show that it was you who visited a specific site.

Two popular VPN providers in Australia with explicit ‘no logs’ policies are NordVPN and Private Internet Access. However, if you need true anonymity because you are apolitical activist, journalist or whistle blower, using a specialist browser,such as Tor, may be more appropriate. This offers greater anonymity but can dramatically slow your connection speed.

Free VPN Apps – never use them

Free VPNs may be tempting but, as has as we have said you can’t trust them! With often substandard privacy policies, opaque logging procedures and hidden ownership, they are not worth the risk.

Ultimately, when you choose a VPN provider to protect your privacy, you are putting your data in their hands. Although they are generally more secure and less intrusive than your ISP, it’s worth being aware that this doesn’t mean that your digital data suddenly disappears.

GadgetGuy’s take:

Do not use a free VPN ever – a paid one provides peace of mind.

A VPN is the perfect piece of software to help enhance your security online and protect your online data from the intrusive gaze of your Internet Service Provider. Additionally, many of the most popular VPN providers still allow you to access otherwise restricted content and will keep you considerably safer online. 

That’s not to say that a VPN will keep you safe from all the threats online. Also, not all VPN providers offer the same level of protection, so it’s essential that you investigate logging policies, privacy policies and connection speeds before you decide.

Thanks to Samuel Woodhams from Top10VPN for providing the background material for this article. Sam and the team specialise in VPN testing and objectively rating them.