Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are an essential security tool, and everyone who logs onto the web, sends emails, streams movies, or works remotely, should know exactly what they can do.
This blog looks at the pros and cons of VPN software, helping you get to grips with this key technology before you make the decision to subscribe to a provider.
What is a VPN? A quick introduction
The idea behind VPN is elegantly simple. Firstly, VPNs apply encryption (in most cases) to any data leaving a user’s device. Generally, this will take the form of 256-Bit AES encryption.
Secondly, VPNs create what are known as “tunnels” between your device and their servers. To do so, they employ “tunneling protocols” such as IKEv2, IPSec, or OpenVPN, which allow traffic to be sent securely across the web.
After that, VPNs essentially route your traffic through “private” servers located in different parts of the world. When this happens, your IP address is substituted for one supplied by the VPN. So, if your server is located in Miami, you’ll seem to be from southern Florida, even if you are located in Glasgow.
All of this is handled by apps called VPN clients, which can be installed on laptops, smartphones, tablets, satellite boxes, games consoles, or even routers.
Understanding the pros and cons of VPN usage
Now that we know a little more about what VPNs are and how they work, let’s weigh up the pros and cons of VPN packages and see if they are the solution for you.
Pros of VPN services
If you have any concerns about leaking business secrets or official surveillance, VPNs are your friend. Because they route your traffic through servers around the world and assign a new IP address for every user, they make it much harder to track individuals as they surf the web, giving you the freedom to express yourself without worrying about being watched.
In addition to anonymizing your IP, VPNs add encryption to the data you send. This means that if someone tries to intercept your emails or web traffic, they will need to crack the cipher used by your VPN if they want to access your passwords or personal information.
These days, many companies divide the content they offer according to geographic regions. Netflix is a great example, offering different rosters of TV shows and movies to different countries. This limits what you can watch, but VPNs have the answer. By letting you pose as a user from anywhere in the world, they can defeat corporate blocks, giving you maximum choice.
In some cases, ISPs tightly limit their users’ connection speed, especially for certain kinds of traffic, such as P2P traffic. You might have encountered this if your download speeds suddenly drop to a snail’s pace. Known as “throttling”, this is an extremely annoying online practice, but you can often make these ISP tactics ineffective by using a VPN.
5. Beat censorship
Defeating censorship is possibly the most famous benefit of using a VPN. If you are located in a country like Iran, Saudi Arabia, or China, a huge portion of the web is kept permanently off-limits by the state. With a VPN, you can work around even the “Great Firewall” of China, giving you access to social media, news, and all sorts of other banned content.
Cons of VPN services
VPNs always place themselves between your device and your ISP, adding encryption and lengthening the route for all of your traffic. This layer of protection inevitably comes with a cost in terms of speed, running the risk of making streams juddery and laggy.
If you see VPNs as a magic bullet to solve your security needs, you’re in for a nasty surprise. While VPNs are a necessary part of an effective personal security setup, they can’t protect you from every online danger. So you’ll need to pair them with antimalware and antivirus packages, as well as password managers and regular OS updates.
3. VPNs could be illegal
We mentioned beating censorship as a pro earlier, but this is also an area where the pros and cons of VPN usage combine. If you do intend to use a VPN to beat censorship, always be aware that you’re running a risk.
4. VPNs aren’t always permitted
Some ISPs and sites (like Netflix) try to prohibit VPN usage – so don’t be surprised if error messages pop up from time to time. And if that happens, think about choosing a different VPN. It’s often a sign that they are leaking IP information or not applying proper encryption.
5. VPN quality varies dramatically
This is the Achilles Heel of the VPN world. Reputable VPN providers deliver on their promises, locking down your web traffic and effectively scrambling your IP address. But there are less honest operators that don’t.
In general, stay clear of free or suspiciously cheap VPNs, especially ad-supported options. And check online reviews before you finalize your choice. As the saying goes, a bad VPN is worse than no VPN.
Find the right VPN to protect your online privacy
As you can see, there are many advantages to using a VPN, as well as a few cons that you should always keep in mind. However, on balance, most security experts would argue that the benefits outweigh the negatives. So why not make a point of installing a VPN on your system this week? Here you can find the list of the best free VPNs in the industry.
When you do, remember to choose wisely. Don’t rush, and don’t fall for seductive marketing. Take your time, weigh up the options, and you’ll be fine.