Do I Really Need a VPN?

The internet can be a dangerous place where anything goes. We often hear horror stories of identity theft, credit card fraud, and government surveillance. At any point, sometimes through little doing of our own, we can find ourselves falling victim to any of these transgressions. Let’s face it. The internet is pretty much a modern day Wild West.

On the flip side, the internet can also be a very restrictive place. Companies and governments can and often will restrict your online activities. They can impose control on what anyone does based purely on that person’s physical location.

So it seems that, depending on what you try to do, the internet can be both risky and wild but at the same time very tightly controlled. Thankfully, there is a single solution that can take care of both problems. That solution is a VPN.

In previous posts, we have talked about how to pick a VPN, and how to improve its performance. But so far, we have not addressed probably the most basic question: do you even need a VPN in the first place? To answer that, let us look at a few scenarios which show the usefulness of using VPN service. Walking through these should open your eyes to the types of dangers and dirty practices that it can solve.

Government Snooping

Even though it may not be as pervasive as it is in China, the American government undeniably spies on its citizens. It employs several techniques, including monitoring activity metadata and gathering information from ISPs (which they are legally required to provide) to track your online habits.

As mentioned, in other countries, of course, the problem can be much worse. Governments will monitor and even prevent access to entire sections of the internet in an attempt to control its citizens.

You can protect yourself from censorship and surveillance by using a VPN. The encrypted tunnel through which your data will pass will ensure you get back your online privacy and your right to express yourself freely.

Use a VPN to stop government online spying

Throttling

Do you sometimes wonder why certain videos take ages to load or why certain files take forever to download? The answer could be your internet service provider throttling your bandwidth based on your activity. To accomplish this, they have to intercept and inspect your data transfers, and that’s something they can do with ease. A scary thought indeed.

Much like in the case of government snooping, because using a VPN will send all your data through an encrypted tunnel, it will make it impossible for the ISP to know what you’re up to. Welcome back privacy and internet speeds actually matching what you pay for.

Anonymous Searches

Have you ever noticed how ads you see online are strangely related to search engine queries you have recently made? It’s no accident. All the key search engines, from Google to Bing and Yahoo, tie any searches you make to your IP address. Those companies can then use that information to target you with ads.

Some of us may not mind this practice. After all, if we search for something we must be interested in it. Well, what if my wife decides to do some hair product research using my computer? I’m not all that interested in seeing Pantene Pro-V ads for the next three weeks. Using a VPN will make sure that does not happen.

Public WiFi Security

Think how often you end up using a public WiFi network. If you’re like me, the answer is as often as you can. It’s a good way of staying within your phone data plan, and an excellent way to keep in touch with the world when you travel. Unfortunately, using a public WiFi can be quite treacherous.

On larger networks, like those at airports, hundreds of other users can be sharing the network with you. Given just a bit of know-how, any one of those individuals can be intercepting and looking at the information you send and receive. The same goes for the company providing the WiFi service.

Using a VPN will stop both in their tracks. Although it can’t prevent anyone from intercepting your data, the secure encrypted connection a VPN provides will make sure that any data that is intercepted is useless.

Stay safe on public WiFi networks with a VPN

These were but a few example cases where using a VPN can be very useful if not vital. Just remember to pick the right VPN service for your needs. Visit Fastest VPN Guide and find all the information you’ll need to make that choice right on their site. Also remember that using a VPN will slow down your internet connection. But, with our recent post on how to improve your VPN speed, however, you will be well taken care of.

VPN vs. Tor Showdown

For those looking to use the Internet anonymously, there are several options. But, the most reliable and commonly used ones are VPNs and Tor (which stands for The Onion Router).

By hiding your real IP address, both options ensure nobody can easily track your online activities. With your IP address hidden, so is your physical location. Both services also let you get around geo-restrictions and censorship, opening up areas of the Internet that would otherwise be unavailable to you.

How Do VPNs Work

Using a VPN keeps your safe and anonymous by encrypting your traffic and hiding your IP address. To use a virtual private network, you first connect to a server. That server will do the talking to the Internet on your behalf.

Once you have established a VPN server connection, any website you visit will only see its IP address, not yours. Additionally, all data transmitted between your device and the server is encrypted. This means no ISP, government organization or hacker can view your activity or steal your information.

All your ISP will see is that you have established an encrypted connection to a VPN server. But, because VPNs are very commonly used by employees to use their company networks remotely, ISPs do not block them.

How Does Tor Work

The primary goal of Tor is anonymization. It’s designed to ensure your privacy online and to make it tough for anyone to be able to figure out your activities. Tor is available for free.

Tor stands for The Onion Router because it has many layers, kind of like the skin of an onion. After internet traffic leaves your device and before it reaches its final destination, it is routed randomly through a massive network of Tor relays. These relays are spread around the world and are run by volunteers.

Your data is also encrypted. In fact, it is re-encrypted multiple times as it passes through the Tor network and until it reached the last node (known as the exit node). From the exit node, your transmission is sent unencrypted to the final destination. But by then, it is impossible for anyone to know who the original sender is.

When it comes to traffic traceability, each node in the relay can only see the IP address of the nodes directly before and after it. So, nobody has visibility into the entire path your transmission takes from when it leaves your device until it reaches its destination.

Each path also expires after 10 minutes. Once it does, a brand new one is randomly generated and used. Whenever you connect to a new website, a different new path is also created.

When all is said and done, your ISP has no way of finding out which sites you frequent. The sites you visit also don’t know who you are since all they can see is the IP address of the last relay computer in the Tor network.

Tor can be downloaded from Tor Project. The video below shows how to install and use it.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Both Tor and VPNs can be used to side step geo-blocking and censorship and to maintain your online privacy. As with most things, there are benefits and cons to using either.

Advantages of a VPN

  • The connection speed will be much quicker that it will with Tor. With a VPN, there is only one server between you and your data’s destination, compared to several with Tor.
  • A VPN service will provide better privacy and security over Tor.
  • VPN client software often includes malware protection.

Disadvantages of a VPN

  • Good VPN services are not free. They cost in the range of $30 to $90 per year, depending on which provider you choose. There are free alternatives, but they are ad driven and not considered as secure or private.

Advantages of Tor

  • Nobody will be able to make a connection between the sites you visit and your device’s IP address.
  • The Tor network is widespread and run by volunteers, making it tough to shut down.

Disadvantages of Tor

  • Because of the number of relay nodes your data travels through, connections are typically quite slow. Therefore, Tor is not suitable for data-intensive activities like streaming video.
  • It’s somewhat easy for ISPs and governments to find and block Tor relays, making it sometimes harder to establish a connection.
  • Anyone can set up a Tor node, including government and law enforcement organizations. If they create enough such nodes, they may be able to start piecing together your online activity.

The Winner

A good VPN is what gets our vote. Tor is a good enough solution if all you intend to do is to surf the web anonymously. But, if you’re interested in streaming video or downloading large files, a VPN is the clear winner. A VPN will also ultimately give you better privacy, security and help protect you from malware.