Using a VPN in today's world is a good idea. The technology has many benefits. But what exactly are VPNs and why should you use one?

What are VPNs?

VPN stands for virtual private network. It's a combination of technologies that give you benefits like:

Protect your privacy by hiding your internet activity from your ISP - and even the government.
Let's you bypass censorship in your school, work, ISP or government.
Allows you to fake your location to access services based on your geographical location (think Netflix)
Helps protect you from hackers when using public Wi-Fi
Allows you to download torrents and use other P2P apps safely.

There are many VPN services to choose from Currently I use LiquidVPN, and AirVPN because I find they complement each other’s features quite well, but they are not the only good VPN service out there.  You'll have to read the privacy policy and other fine print to find out what data they collect from you. It's best to stick to paid VPN services, since free VPNs make up the cost in other ways, like selling your information.

How VPNs Work

When you use the internet, you're connecting to your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which then connects to websites and other online resources. All this happens through public switching stations called "Data centers." On average your data makes about 10 to 15 stops before it gets to its destination. Many times this happens in plain text. Meaning anyone inspecting traffic between you and the Pokemon go servers can pluck out your most valuable information at will. Once you start using a VPN, you connect to a server run by the VPN provider who encrypts everything from your device to their servers. Your connection is encrypted before it's passed to your ISP's. This has several advantages:

Your ISP doesn't know what you're doing on the web. It only sees that you're connected to a server somewhere.

To everyone else, it looks like you have the VPN server's IP address. If the server is in another country, it appears as if you're the one in the other country. Your real IP address is hidden, so third parties trying to monitor users web activity can only trace it back to the VPN servers, and not your computer or smartphone.
It's safe to use any public Wi-Fi hotspot because your internet connection is encrypted. Even if an attacker somehow intercepts your data, they won't be able to read it.

However, using a VPN brings several disadvantages as well:

Your VPN provider knows about your internet activity. Although your ISP can't track you, the VPN provider you use can figure out what you're doing, so it's important to choose a VPN service provider you trust.
Your internet connection can slow down some. Encrypting and decrypting data uses a lot of processing power. The stronger the encryption, the slower the connection will be from devices like routers and older smartphones. Since modern computers are powerful, you probably won't notice much of a slowdown from one. Also, the farther away the VPN server is from you, the more latency you will experience. It is important to look for a service that has servers in countries that have great connectivity AND good privacy laws. Here's a hint there are not that many countries like this so don't base your decision on the number of flags on a map.

Are VPNs Legal?

For the most part, yes. Some countries like Iran and China make it illegal to use a VPN. But these are countries that already have a poor track record when it comes to human rights. Adding a ban on VPNs isn't really a surprise. Ironically citizens of these countries use VPN services more than places like the United States.

That is because people will always find a way around censorship. Even in China, which has the most famous censorship system in the world with their "Great Firewall" is only partially successful when it comes to blocking VPN usage.

In some countries in Europe, governments have used the fear of terrorism to pass surveillance laws. France and the UK require service providers to keep logs of user activity.

How to Find a Good VPN Service

There are many VPN providers out there, and not all of them are equal. When choosing a provider read each provider's Terms of Service, as well as their privacy policy and landing pages. Things to look for include:


Dedicated server hardware: Remember that using a VPN inherently slows your connection to some extent. Find out if the provider is using bare-metal servers or "cloud servers" bare-metal is always better.

Privacy: Check to see if the provider has detailed descriptions of what they do and do not log. All VPN providers promise you privacy, but a lot of that talk is marketing and hyperbole. Your privacy and identity are on the line - make sure your VPN provider treats it seriously.

Security: Does the VPN provider give you facts or marketing speak? Look for actual technologies like perfect forward secrecy, AES 256 CBC, 512 Bit authentication, 4096 bit RSA server keys. Claims like Military grade encryption is marketing mumbo jumbo.

Location of servers: Does the provider have servers in the USA, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Singapore, and to a lesser extent Iceland, Spain, Hong Kong, and Romania? These countries offer the best mix of connectivity and privacy.

Number of simultaneous connections: Does the provider give you enough connections for all your devices to connect at the same time?

Customer support: Does the company have good customer support? Are your questions answered in a timely manner?

Free trials/money back guarantees: Many VPN providers have free trials, and/or a money back guarantee. You can try out the service for a limited time (like a week) before you pay or get your money back.
Software: Is the VPN software updated regularly? Is it easy to use, or clunky and outdated? Also, check for cross-platform support.

Privacy, Broken Down

Let's talk some more about how a VPN provider treats your privacy. Every company is different, and you'll want to see if your provider hides behind empty promises or not. All VPN companies promise to protect your privacy. At the same time, the VPN employees probably aren't willing to go to jail to protect a customer that uses the service to conceal their drug deals. One thing to be on the lookout for is companies that brag about the fact that they are registered in a hole in the wall/lawless country. You need to be more concerned about where the employees live instead of the P.O. Box that mail gets forwarded too.

What kind of data would the company have? First, your personal information like name, email address, credit card number, etc. Next, some VPN providers keep logs of when you connect, how much you download or the IP addresses you connect from. Expect most of them to keep this information even if they say they don't. 
VPN companies perform monitoring of users' internet activity. This is essential for troubleshooting and fixing problems when they arise. Most providers that are truly no log providers don't perform monitoring beyond what can be done in real time. This can mean it's a bit more of a hassle when you contact their technical support, and they know absolutely nothing about the problem you are having. This is the tradeoff you make for protecting your privacy. 

Some VPN services offer extra ways to protect your privacy. For instance, AirVPN integrates an advanced firewall and a billion different options on its client to let you tweak the way everything works. iVPN offers multihop, which routes your traffic through 2 or more of their VPN servers in different locations and LiquidVPN offers an advanced firewall and IP modulation. IP modulation sends your data out on different IP addresses for each connection. 

Now that you have a good fundamental knowledge about what a VPN is and is not it is time to get out there and figure out what works for you.