What is a VPN and do you need one?

VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network” and its purpose is to give you complete privacy in your internet activities

Invisible ManThere have been two different uses of the term “VPN”. The earlier use was in the case of an individual connecting to a work computer while away from that organisation’s internal, local, network. So, for example, a salesman on the road could connect to his work computer using a VPN, log his sales activity, get access to confidential company information and so on. The connection is encrypted (so no-one can “eavesdrop” on the data passing along the connection) and an “ordinary” person could not make that connection to the organisation’s confidential system because he lacked the username and password.

Nowadays, though, the more widespread use of the term VPN means anyone connecting to the internet in such a way that (a) all of the data passing to and fro is encrypted and (b) the identity of the person making the connection is hidden from that person’s ISP (internet Service Provider), and also hidden from the website to which the connection is being made. Let me just add a caveat that there are possible “holes” in the privacy, so just treat this article as an introduction to the subject. If you really need complete assurance of privacy you need to do more research. Some starting points are offered in the links at the foot of this article.

What are the main benefits of using a VPN?

  • Your internet provider (ISP) can not tell where you go and what you do on the internet when you access the internet via a VPN. They almost certainly don’t care, anyway, but thanks to the Snoopers’ Charter (more properly known as The Investigatory Powers Act 2016) they are now obliged to keep logs of your activity for 12 months so that the police can have a look at where you’ve been. They can’t hand over information if they don’t have it.
  • When you connect to a website, then that website can not see your unique IP address (which uniquely identifies you) and they don’t know where you are. In fact, they will think you are located where the server of the VPN provider is located. You can often choose where you want to appear to be when using your VPN (TunnelBear, for instance, offers this facility). Two major things flow from this:
    • The website can’t build a profile of who you are and what you are interested in (and that includes the likes of Google Search). This is a huge step in protecting your privacy.
    • The website can’t pick and choose whether to serve you what you want based upon where in the world you are. A major example of how this can help us Brits is that you can use a VPN to kid BBC iPlayer into thinking you are in the UK (and, therefore able to access its content) whereas you are really in Timbuktu (or anywhere else).
  • Since all of the data is encrypted when using a VPN, it is safer to connect to open wifi hotspots in coffee bars and the like. Anyone eavesdropping on your conversation will only pick up encrypted data.

TunnelBear logo
TunnelBear has a free version of its VPN, allowing you to download 500mb per month
What are the costs of using a VPN?

  • Speed. Since you are adding an extra step to the process (connection to the VPN server through which you connect to the internet), your internet connection will slow down. This will be exacerbated if the VPN server is half way around the world. It will also slow down as everything needs to be encrypted and decrypted. If you start off with a good, fast, connection, on a reasonable computer then my recent tests indicate that the slowdown caused by using a VPN isn’t really a problem any more.
  • Financial. Although you can get a free VPN service that allows up to (say) 500mb of data download per month, that’s not going to get you much BBC iPlayer content. You will need a subscription (about £5-£10 per month) that gives unlimited downloads.
  • You might experience inconvenience from accounts to which you are connected if they suddenly think you must have been hacked. My email program automatically checks my Gmail account and if it does this when I’m playing with a VPN then Google makes the wrong assumption that since my account is being accessed from an IP address not in the UK then someone must have stolen my password. This causes them to fire off umpteen emails telling me “someone has your password”.

BBC iPlayer logo
A VPN whose server is in the UK will let you watch iPlayer abroad
You might think (quite rightly) that everything you do with a VPN must be accessible to whoever controls that VPN. That may be the case, but if the server is outside the UK then it’s not subject to our Snoopers’ Charter. They won’t keep more information about you and your activity than they need to for the purpose of providing the service. If I was either very naughty or very paranoid I would probably investigate this aspect a bit more before trusting the privacy of a VPN.

There are other things that can go wrong when using a VPN. For instance, if the VPN connection is lost then your connection could fall back to your normal connection via your ISP and you might not be aware that you had suddenly “become visible”.

If you are really serious about using a VPN to cover your tracks, then I reccommend investigating the potential problems and how you might overcome them before trusting that a VPN will always give you complete anonymity. You could start by having a look at these links:

VPNs for beginners
A Complete Guide to IP Leaks

.. and to give VPNs a try, I suggest starting with the free offering from TunnelBear