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VPN: What you need to know

Dr Harry Brown discusses the benefits and pitfalls of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and how to choose the VPN which best suits your needs. 

Public communications networks are the backbone of the internet. Our computers and mobile devices connect to the internet which gives worldwide coverage and communication for a huge variety of purposes.

If you are using a public network, your data may not be fully secure, and cybercriminals could potentially access your precious communications. This could be important, for example, when accessing your bank account online. Indeed, under certain conditions, it is possible that confidential access codes to your online bank account could be at risk.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN allows your data to be transmitted in a data secure ‘tunnel’ across the internet and then entered into a computer belonging to the VPN company. Your data comes out at the other end, relatively anonymous and more secure.

So, without being too technical, you become more anonymous, and you can even change your location. Your computer connects to the internet with a recognised address called an IP address, which is like a house address.

Using a VPN changes that and so you are anonymous, and your unique IP address is masked. This opens up all sorts of possibilities and potential advantages.

What are the advantages of a VPN?

A significant advantage of using a VPN is that your browsing habits are more secure. Your data is encrypted and shielded from online snoopers. But how important is this?

Very important, is the simple answer. There are a substantial number of advantages, and some may not be all that obvious. For example, you could be on a public Wi-Fi network in a public building or a coffee shop. While public networks are useful, they have the potential to compromise your security, especially if you are dealing with a personal or financial matter, like making a bank transaction.

Keeping your data secure is a core feature of using a VPN and this can protect you from third parties, such as websites and even your own internet provider. A VPN therefore can make it more difficult for censors or criminals to hack your connections and see what you are doing.

Your IP address can suggest where you are situated but this can be masked by your VPN. This can be helpful in countries where freedom of information flow is subject to excessive monitoring by censors looking for political activity.

In addition, some media services (such as streaming services, like Netflix) will restrict TV programmes and films to certain countries. By using a VPN, you can view different shows which are being offered from the same service, but in a country that is not normally able to view such content.

Be aware that this may be due to legal reasons, and these services are often on the look out for VPN accesses, and may try and block these VPNs from accessing content which is restricted to specific regions.

Although VPNs are a useful additional layer of security, you will still need the usual anti-virus software, firewalls and two-factor authentication where appropriate.

here are many VPN providers to choose from and this can add complexity and confusion to the consumer’s decision on which service to choose and at what payment level. You should also bear in mind that your VPN may be slowing your connection speed and in turn, the VPN provider could even be accessing your data

Which VPN should you choose?

This is a hugely difficult question and it depends on your needs, budget and potential levels of use. There are paid and free VPN versions and there are many VPN providers out there.

While many people may opt for the free version, you should be aware that free VPNs often offer restricted services compared to their paid for counterparts. For example, free services may offer a limited choice of regional servers, the speed of connection may be restricted and some service providers may have unclear privacy policies. It is useful to look at trusted reviews which are relatively up to date.

PC magazine published a useful review which looks at free VPNs. As the article points out, there is variation between the free services so you may have to field test some for yourself to see if it suits your needs. A sister article to the one above also gives a good general overview of paid for VPN services.

PC Pro, a UK IT magazine, has a very helpful and practical review of VPNs. It declared NordVPN as the top VPN, but Proton VPN also featured in both recommended lists and has the advantage of a free version (albeit with restrictions).

Anti-virus packages sometimes come with built-in VPNs

Anti-virus packages sometimes come with built-in VPNs, so it is worth checking what your current package includes. Failing that, the free version of Windscribe comes with a generous 10GB package a month, as does TunnelBear.

However, the choice between a free and paid for VPN can be tricky and depends on your needs. Equally within the range of paid for VPNs, there are a number of different choices.

It is wise to check out a number of reviews before you choose. While I have highlighted a few in this article, it is worth asking family, friends and work colleagues to see what they use, as this could influence your decision.

Having a VPN on standby for both your mobile device and computer is very useful, as you never know when you will need one. You might want to have more than one service available, but whatever you choose, make sure to do some research and learn more about the subject as well as which VPNs are available. This short article does not have scope to cover all the issues about VPNs and the complex marketplace.

If you have any suggestions of useful websites, apps, software or equipment to highlight and share, please contact our editor at [email protected]. We would be delighted to hear from you.

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