How VPNs keep you safe online

Back in the day, a VPN (virtual private network) was something that only hardcore tech nerds understood. When the term “VPN” is strictly defined, most people’s eyes would glaze over. Ponder this brief definition from Wikipedia:

“A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across a public network and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network.”

Um, ok.  At first glance, this sounds like enough work to make anyone just take their chances, but today’s VPN services are surprisingly easy to use, full-featured and inexpensive.

Most know that using public Wi-Fi networks can be risky, even if they’re well-managed. If you enjoy getting out of your office to work at a coffee shop or travel frequently, you’re going to be vulnerable to data capture from unsavory characters… and it may be the guy sitting 10 feet from you in the airport lounge. With all the logging-in we do all day, this is really an unacceptable risk to be taking. So, how does a VPN help? Simply put:

1. A VPN relocates your traffic to a network server elsewhere in the world. You’re in the airport lounge and connected to the local Wi-Fi, but your traffic is not, effectively making you invisible to the airport lounge hacker. He can’t snoop around your stuff if he can’t see you.

2. A VPN encrypts your online activity. If your online activity were visible, it wouldn’t be of any value to the airport lounge hacker anyway, as it wouldn’t be readable.

3. Using a VPN helps protect other networks you log into. If you log into a company or other private server, using a VPN helps keep that safe too, as your login can’t be picked up.

4. Most VPNs allow you to choose the country for your connection. This can help bypass geography-based limitations on available content, whether you’re avoiding overseas government censorship, or just looking for a different selection of Netflix titles to watch.

Besides giving you peace of mind while on the road, VPNs also help shield you from the far more common tracking that we’re subject from internet service providers, search engines and social media platforms. In a nutshell, VPNs anonymize you online. For people in data-sensitive careers such as health care, journalism or social activism, having the ability to shield online activity from surveillance is critical.

The good news is that VPN services today are not only surprisingly inexpensive, they are incredibly easy to use—and there’s no tech-savviness required.  There’s quite a few of well-regarded services to choose from and most are generally similar in price. Some offer additional features that add value, such as file storage, email or other bells and whistles, such as kill-switches and split-tunnelling. Here’s a quick-list of VPN providers to consider:

🏆 Proton VPNThis is what I use and recommend. Incredibly easy to use and fast. Switzerland-based Proton also offers additional services such as email (the famous Proton Mail), Proton Drive and Proton Calendar. A slower free option is available. There’s even a HIPAA/GDPR compliant business-level service that bundles all products together—offering a privacy-centered alternative to Google and Microsoft for business mail and cloud storage. If you’re looking for a comprehensive privacy and security solution, this is it.

NordVPN: Huge, well-regarded VPN service provider with great pricing. Service includes malware and ad blocking, dark web monitoring and optional 2-layer IP protection.

ExpressVPN: Top-5 VPN service, highly rated by tech press. Connection servers in 92 countries, 24/7 customer support.

Surfshark: Often recommended for VPN beginners, with ease of use, low pricing and anti-virus features. PC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice.

Private Internet Access VPN: Offers advanced features such as split-tunnelling, kill switch and anonymous crypto payment options, if you really want to go off-grid.

For an easy-to-digest overview of VPNs and why you should use one, check out this informative article at Forbes Advisor.  In summary, there’s no reason to take your chances at the coffee shop or the airport lounge, when you can easily and inexpensively protect yourself online with all these great VPN service options.

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