Ah, privacy. It may be something of a relic of the past these days, as every website seems to track your surfing to either try and sell you something or do something even more nefarious, often involving African princes and lost inheritances or the (Not Really) Canadian Revenue Agency and iTunes gift cards.
Who hasn’t searched for something on Amazon or eBay and wound up getting pushed advertising for the same product (or alternatives) for weeks no matter where you were travelling on the web? I once put some car tires in a cart at one site, changed my mind, and then had that almost-purchase haunt me like some kind of spurned spirit for months all over the net. Call it the Ghost of Radials Past.
But you don’t have to make it so easy. And if you are now working, shopping, and surfing for fun from your home office, you have an obligation to ensure that outside agencies cannot track your activities. This is, of course, also smart practice for anyone and everyone, given the number of scams, ransom attacks, and other cyber crimes being perpetrated today.
So get yourself a VPN. What’s that mean, you may ask? Well, a VPN is a Virtual Private Network. This functions as kind of a shortcut around your ISP (Internet Service Provider), blocking the ability to observe what you do online. While that provider can see that you are connecting to a VPN, everything from that point on goes through that VPN. And VPNs–the good ones that charge a subscription fee, at any rate–do not track or keep logs, which means you are as close to anonymous as it is possible to be online.
Here’s a good way to envision how this works. Think of the internet as a big apartment building. If you’re using a VPN, you can only be seen at the front door of that building. Once you go inside, you can head to any address you want without being monitored. If you’re not using a VPN, you’re allowing your internet service provider to follow you from door to door, and keep a log of every address you visit.
This sounds rather complicated to the average person. It isn’t. Here is what you need to do to get online with a VPN:
1. Pick a VPN provider. There are a lot of very good ones online. I won’t recommend a specific one, as I have not tried all of the better choices to be able to provide a fair assessment. A quick Google search will lead to countless reviews. Some of the better bets include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, IP Vanish, StrongVPN, and more. Expect to pay anywhere from $60-100 US per year for full VPN service, either in a lump sum or as a monthly subscription.
2. Do NOT sign on with a “free” VPN. Nothing is truly free. Avoid these supposedly gratis companies, who could well pay for their operating expenses by tracking and selling your data. Speed is also a major factor here. Remember that you are routing your internet traffic away from your ISP and onto the VPN servers. This can mean a hit to speed and connection stability. With a good, subscription-based VPN such as the ones noted above, you will not see any speed decreases or connectivity down times. The VPN that I use actually seems to make my surfing faster, for the most part.
3. Install the VPN company’s proprietary app. Most VPN subscriptions include the ability to install an app on a set number of devices like PCs, phones, and tablets. I’ll just cover the PC in detail here, but the apps are similar on all devices. The VPN service that I use has a basic Windows tray app that starts automatically whenever the computer boots up. I use this app to choose a current location from hundreds of options all over the planet, spread across nearly 100 countries. There is even a built-in kill switch, so if my net connection ever goes down, even for a split-second, all internet traffic is instantly halted to preserve my privacy. I even have access to 24/7 online support, so I can send text questions to live operators if I ever encounter any issues.
4. Head online as usual. Do your thing, for work or play. Yes, it really is that easy. VPNs have evolved from what was once reserved for techies to a set-it-and-forget-it service that is as extremely user-friendly.
And that is about it for getting started with a VPN. Given the surge of remote work since COVID-19 arrived on the scene in February, and the inevitable rise in cyber crime that spring into action to take advantage of this, you need to protect yourself as much as possible when online. Make your first line of defense a VPN.