Stop prying eyes with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

What is a VPN?

Anyone who uses an Internet-connected device away from home or the office should consider a Virtual Private Network (VPN). 

A VPN allows a computing device to communicate securely, even while connected to a network not known to be trustworthy. It creates an encrypted communications channel between your device and a VPN server and configures your access to the Internet to go through that server. Connections you make will appear to come from that server, which may be in a different country. 

Benefits of a VPN

If you trust your Internet Service Provider (ISP), you probably do not need a VPN at home when connecting to the Internet. However, when using public Wi-Fi away from home (e.g. in hotels or restaurants), data you transmit and receive could be collected in transit by hackers. This can happen by them eavesdropping on your communications or by setting up fraudulent Wi-Fi access points that look like normal public access hotspots. Using a VPN ensures that your data is safe, even if you are communicating over a compromised connection. This can be more important if you are travelling abroad and can’t take advantage of your phone service provider’s mobile browsing. 

Selecting a VPN

When selecting a VPN, you should limit yourself to well-known software from reputable companies. Some app stores have fake VPNs that cybercriminals have uploaded to try and steal your data. Find the installation link from the company’s website or ensure that the VPN in an app store is from a legitimate source, and not from an organization with a similar name or logo. Even some legitimate companies have had flaws found in their VPN software that could put users at risk. Check reviews to see whether a VPN you are considering might have had security breaches. 

Recommended options

Free reliable VPNs exist, usually associated with a browser manufacturer. Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox browser offers a VPN at https://vpn.mozilla.org. The Opera web browser, https://www.opera.com, has a VPN built in. 

Some paid VPNs offer free tiers of limited service to let you try before you buy. TunnelBear allows 500 MB of data use per month in its free tier on a single device. You can upgrade to unlimited data plans covering multiple devices. Among paid VPNs, ExpressVPN and NordVPN are also well-regarded. All these VPNs offer support for different types of devices, letting you protect laptops, tablets, and mobile phones, including the browsers running on those devices. 

Although using a VPN can help safeguard your digital communications, it can’t defend you against all threats. You should still use strong, unique passphrases or passwords for each of your accounts. Use two-factor authentication (2FA),if possible. And always think before you do anything online. 

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