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Sunday, January 16, 2022

What is a VPN and Do I Need One?

You’ve probably heard of virtual private networks (VPNs). We explain what they are and why you should probably be using one.    

The internet is a wonderful thing. But there are hazards to using it, especially for older adults who may not be aware of, say, the difference between being at the doctor’s office or being at home while checking their stock portfolio or email. There is a way to keep safer, more secure, and more private while browsing online, and it’s by using a virtual private network, or VPN.

Every computer has an IP (internet protocol) address, which makes it identifiable on the internet or a local network. It’s sort of like the address for your house showing everyone where you live. You might not want others to see your IP address when you’re browsing. Businesses can see what you’re buying and researching. Even worse, when you’re on a public network hackers can break in to your connection to steal passwords or view your information.

How a VPN Works

A VPN is able to disguise your address by redirecting it via a remote server that becomes the source of your data. In this way, your internet service provider (ISP) and any other third parties can’t know which websites you visit or what data you send and receive while you’re online. In fact, the VPN turns all your data into unusable gibberish, so even if other parties could see your data, they wouldn’t be able to decipher or use it.

Caveats and Best VPNs to Use

There are loads of VPN providers to choose from, and it pays to find one you can trust. Beware of free VPN services and even some paid ones that may sell your information to third parties. Your ISP can’t see your data, but your VPN provider can. And if a VPN is compromised, so is your data. For this reason, you’ll want to go with a company that has been vetted. The easiest way to do this is to use a VPN recommended by a trusted source. We used PC Magazine to find some of their top picks for VPN services. Here are companies that made the top grade:
NordVPN (Editors’ Choice)
Surfshark (Editors’ Choice)
Proton (Editors’ Choice)
Express (Editors’ Choice)
IVPN (Editors’ Choice)
Mullvad (Editors’ Choice)

Another way to think of a VPN is like a secret, secure tunnel between you and the internet that your ISP and other third parties cannot see. The VPN changes your IP address to a different one provided by the server, protecting all of your data.

It is important to realize that a VPN is not the same as anti-virus software, which protects your devices against outside intrusion. For instance, a VPN cannot detect malware that may be sent via email. You still need comprehensive anti-virus software on your devices, and you should still follow safe practices such as never opening email from a sender you don’t recognize.

What Does a VPN Actually Provide?

  • Enhanced security. A VPN connection is hack-proof, and it encodes all of your activity to make it unreadable.
  • More privacy. Your connections are no longer linked to your computer. Your ISP doesn’t know, and can’t record, which websites you’ve visited. 
  • Better website access. Some information and streaming is limited geographically. With a VPN, there is no censorship or blocking based on your IP address.
  • Greater anonymity. Since you never use your own IP address, you are hidden. It often looks like you’re in a different part of the world than where you are.
Reading through these services, you may suspect that VPNs can be used for nefarious purposes. That is true. Many people use VPNs to access content that is only available in a localized area, such as when Netflix releases films in specific geographic areas. However, Netflix and related companies are increasingly able to stop that activity. 

Another common use is of VPNs is by people who live in countries where the government censors available internet information. Using a VPN enables them to access information from other sources to get a better idea of what is happening and to find other viewpoints. 

One big reason for older adults in the U.S. to use a VPN is to stay safe on the internet while using public networks. You may feel perfectly safe using the Internet at your local library or in the doctor’s office, but you are not. You may not even realize your computer or phone is using a public network, since most of us use a setting to find public networks and remember passwords. After all, we want to be frugal and save on data usage! But that could backfire in a big way if someone accesses your information.

Are VPNs Hard to Use?

Many of us are loathe to add yet another tech service to our devices that we don’t completely understand. The good news is that adding a VPN is super easy. You don’t need to buy any new equipment or change service providers. You don’t need to hire the Geek Squad to hook anything up. You can just go online and walk through the simple steps your VPN provider gives you.

Turning the VPN on is as simple as moving a toggle in your settings from “off” to “on.” And if you just want to keep it on all the time, that’s okay. The only downside might be slightly slower internet speeds. If that’s important to you, select a VPN provider that is highly rated in that area.

Using a VPN allows you to use your computer, smartphone, or tablet any way you want to, no matter where you are. Make stock trades or email your accountant, knowing your financial information is secure. Shop to your heart’s content without getting a thousand related advertisements. VPNs are an easy way to secure your privacy and evade hackers.