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What the Hack Is a VPN?

Originally published:|Last updated:|Dashlane
Internet user disguised while using VPN

For years, my friends who “know about technology” and “think we have a right to privacy online” have been absolutely begging me to get a VPN. They’re right, I guess. My job is fairly public, and I was doxxed a couple of times during Gamergate. But, I reasoned, it hasn’t happened since, and I’m really good at all the other ways of protecting myself online. I have two-factor authentication on basically everything I’ve ever logged in to. I routinely check my computer for malware. I even (gasp!) back things up to an external hard drive and the cloud. As far as my tech security hygiene goes, I figured I was good. At least way better than most.

I actually had a VPN once before. When I was in college, I studied abroad for a semester in England, which was great except that at the time you could not watch any good American shows on the British internet, and I was homesick. I wanted to watch Grey’s Anatomy, so a nice friend helped me install a VPN which I used the entirety of that summer and promptly forgot everything about: what it was called, how it worked, and why I’d need it for reasons other than catching up with my favorite fake doctors.

In my quest to understand what a VPN even is, and if I might need one again, I had stumbled across a site called VPNmentor (by googling “what is VPN”) and found a plethora of reviews by users and staff alike. I hopped on the phone with Katy Willis, an easy-going British content manager for VPNmentor. She says her website has tested at least 336 different VPN companies, as well as investigating data breaches for big corporations. There were recommendations and how-tos, pros and cons, and warnings about scams.

I was confused. “Explain it to me like I’m 16 years old,” I said to Willis.

“Well, 16 year olds probably have a better understanding of this stuff than any of us,” she said, mildly hurting my feelings.

But she had a point. I am a child of the early internet, the internet where you could build your own sites without paying a middleman and change the background on your Myspace page using HTML. I grew up with an internet that I believed was magical and wonderful and that was not trying to take all of my personal data and sell it to corporations and governments. Today’s teens are smarter. Despite that hiccup, Katy did explain VPN to me.

vir·tu·al pri·vate net·work

noun /vərCH(oo)əl prīvit netˌwərk/

A VPN creates a private network from a public internet connection, hiding your IP address and encrypting all the data sent and received from a connected device.

VPN (or Virtual Private Network) is essentially a disguise.

Anyone who has watched the same wooden-heeled clogs follow them from the Madewell site to their Instagram and then across the internet for six weeks, even though you decided you didn’t want them, knows that the internet is tracking you. And while some of that might be okay in theory, it can also leave you a little vulnerable. What a VPN does is give you a different home on the internet. Instead of connecting from your computer in the Starbucks in Midtown, for example, the VPN makes it look like you are connecting from somewhere else. No one can see where you came from.

I grew up with an internet that I believed was magical and wonderful and that was not trying to take all of my personal data and sell it to corporations and governments.

For example, let’s say you turn your location on so that your sister can see where you are. She can see you walking around and know that little blue dot is you, so that when you show up at dinner with her (late, of course) she has already been watching you leave your apartment and stop for gas and pull into the parking lot. Now in this situation, you chose this particular hell by allowing your sister to see your location. But online, without a VPN, there is no opting in to that kind of tracking. You just are automatically tracked. Brands, companies, automated softwares (and some governments) can all see not only where you came from, but how long you spent on a page, and where else you went, and what color clogs you spent the most time looking at. What a VPN does is make you anonymous, mysterious, private—masking your location and your data and your browsing activity.

Willis tells me there are four things you could use a VPN for:

PRIVACY: “There is still that common stereotype that VPN users are up to naughty things. That they want to download copyrighted material via torrent,” Willis says. While you certainly would want a VPN to protect you if you were planning on doing illegal activity, that’s not the only reason to use them. If you’re privacy conscious, a VPN can give you the peace of mind that your data and your information is safe. “People use them more and more because they realize just how vulnerable they are to having their information stolen.” If you want to be really private, choose a VPN that doesn’t keep any logs at all so that even if a government entity served a warrant to the company for your data, there wouldn’t be anything to give.

CENSORSHIP: Let’s say you’re on a WiFi network (like at a school or in an office) that has parental controls of sorts. A VPN allows you to navigate around those walls by pretending that you aren’t there in the first place. It also allows you to navigate around walls that may be implemented by state governments such as the ones currently in place in China.

PUBLIC WIFI: “I would never connect to public WiFi without having a VPN turned on,” Willis says. “The door is wide open. If you’re cruising unprotected on public WiFi, a hacker with a basic bit of knowledge could see everything on your computer.” A VPN makes it so that all a hacker can see is a nice encrypted data package, nothing valuable at all.

GLOBAL CONTENT: “The Super Bowl was fairly recently, and that’s not shown in every country,” Willis says. With a VPN, you can connect to a server anywhere in the world. What that means is that you can make it seem like your computer is in England, so that you can watch the British broadcast of the Liverpool game, or in Japan for the newest season of Terrace House, or even just in New York so that you can watch The Bachelor live on the East Coast.

It took me about an hour after talking to Willis on the phone to download a VPN onto all of my devices and my home router. Even though I’d known before that the internet had eyes that were watching me and that my data was being collected, I suddenly fully felt it. We don’t agree to have our data taken in the first place, but the whole point of a VPN is that it allows you to opt out.

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