VPN stands for virtual private network. Essentially, anonymity and security while browsing the internet are its main attributes. In this article, we’ll be looking at some surprising and very handy uses of VPNs.
Some basics: When you do a search, every request you make passes through your ISP (Internet Service Provider) before reaching the server that hosts your destination website. All the data in this exchange is unencrypted, meaning your ISP can read it. What’s worse, they can also hand your activity logs over to third parties, like government agencies or advertisers.
Envisage VPN as a safety channel which keeps the traffic between your computer (or any mobile device) and the site you visit, completely anonymous. Instead of connecting to that site’s server directly, your computer connects to the VPN and all resulting exchanges are safely held within that secure connection.
In other words, you function as if you were on the same local network as the VPN. An encrypted request is forwarded to the website via the VPN and the response is likewise forwarded back to you.
Now, let’s get to the meat of some nifty ways to use a VPN.
1. Access Geo-Blocked Websites
Your VPN connection will let you use the Internet as if you were connecting from the VPN’s location. Let’s say you’re traveling and you want to watch a documentary premiering on Netflix or BBC’s iPlayer. There are VPN services which have multiple servers located in several countries, giving you the ability to choose where you appear to be connected from.
2. Dodge Targeted Ads
Who wants to be easy prey in the creepy era of personalised targeted ads? Information regarding your food and music preferences, where you shop, or general health issues, are just some of the data that can be gathered about you. Unfortunately, there is no official regulation overseeing what can or can’t be handed over by your ISP to aggressive online marketing corporations. To make matters worse, the US senate recently voted to allow ISPs to sell your browsing history to advertisers, by eliminating privacy rules which would’ve required your previous consent.
Yep, ISPs can now build a detailed profile of their customer’s viewing and listening history. HTTPS helps reduce the Big Brother style mapping, but they will still be able to see that you visited a particular domain. With VPN though, traffic encryption means anytime you listen to a podcast, or look up the nearest pharmacy, you’ll appear to be at your VPN’s IP address, instead of your own.
3. Browse from a park, a bus, or a sushi bar without getting hacked.
Hackers are always going to come up with new malicious programs, viruses and more threats. The insecure connection implicit in public networks such as WiFi can be mitigated by passing through a VPN connection. If an attacker tries to gather sensitive data, what they would see instead are the incomprehensible characters exchanged from the end user to the VPN server. Antivirus and firewalls do a relatively good job at keeping us safe, but VPN adds an extra layer of encryption between end users and the big bad wolves lurking around the internet.
4. Optimize Connectivity Speed
ISPs around the world purposely slow down popular streaming sites. Both Youtube and Netflix get throttled to reduce bandwidth usage. This is sometimes referred to as ¨traffic shaping¨, and it really, really slow things down. Other targets are MMO games such as Minecraft or World of Warcraft. At the outset, this practice poses the advantage of fighting internet traffic congestion. Ultimately though, it hampers with connectivity and users even end up paying their ISP more money for increased speed.
By utilising a VPN, you save yourself a lot of hassle caused by traffic shaping, as your ISP won’t be able to detect that you’re connected to these sites.
5. Talk to your Friends and Family Abroad for Next to Nothing
Spending time away from home? We all know that with Skype or any other VOIP (Voice Over the Internet Protocol) long distance calls are more affordable than calling direct. Nevertheless, depending on the country you’re calling and how long for, rates can get pricey. By connecting to the service via a VPN which shares server location with the destination you’re dialling up, the cost becomes equivalent to making a local VOIP call. Sweeeet.
6. Outsmart the Airlines
We’ve all had that moment when you get excited about the price of a flight, only to find that after checking out a few more options, the original fare goes up significantly.
Blasted cookies!? Actually, it’s not just the multiple searches for ¨Istanbul¨ on different airline and travel sites that are foiling your ultra cheap ticket. Geo-location and newer forms of data-collection are getting increasingly sophisticated.
If you’re in a country which gets targeted with higher fares, you can avoid geo-location pricing by connecting to a VPN service that is located elsewhere. Added to that, encrypted browsing means you can totally bypass the airfare data-profiling tug of war.
7. Safer and Faster File Sharing
It’s no secret that VPN connections are used by many to download files from Torrent services. There is a legal way to do file sharing though and we can only hope that’s how you roll. However, if you think your good intentions on Torrent sites can’t be monitored by government agencies, such as the NSA, think again. Nobody wants to be blacklisted by these guys or their equivalent around the world. The most sure-fire way to keep your identity from being disclosed is by using a VPN.
Also, as mentioned above, ISPs often throttle very popular services and that includes Torrent sites like BitTorrent. So not only do you stay safer, you also get improved speeds when sharing files via a VPN connection.
I’m converted. Now where do I sign up?
Getting a VPN is fairly straightforward now as most providers offer one-click installation. If you have any VPN life hacks you would like to share, please add them in the comments section below.