This article was contributed by Jacob Davis who is a data analyst and strategist working in the Israeli startup tech space for the last decade, Soprano Media is one of his clients.
If you're not the techie type, you might not be aware of the various advantages of using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) – indeed you might not even know what one is. Relax, all shall be revealed!
A virtual private network is really nothing other than a ‘middleman' connection to the internet from your device, whether that's a laptop, smartphone or tablet. Without a VPN, your laptop would be connected by cable or Wi-Fi to your domestic router, which is usually provided by your internet service provider (ISP). The router will then connect to the ISP's server, wherever that may be, but almost certainly in your country of residence, then in turn, when you attempt to connect to a website, say Booking.com, the ISP's server makes the connection, and you view the destination site.
But when using a VPN, another link is added to the chain, and your device accesses your ISP via a third party encrypted server, owned by the VPN provider. This means that neither your ISP, nor the destination website, can identify your location or your identity.
Even better, you can get a VPN for free just by downloading a small installer file and adding the VPN software as a browser extension onto whatever device you wish; there's no limit on how many devices you can protect.
Now you know what a VPN is, and you have a basic understanding of how it works, why would you wish to use one? What's the point? There are several advantages, outlined below:
Easing off the throttle
Some ISPs have ‘fair usage policies', especially when it comes to their users downloading 4G data, as opposed to ‘fiber to the home' (FTTH) connections. This happens when home users do a lot of gaming and streaming of TV shows. If a household has three teenage kids on Netflix and online games, plus a parent working from home as a freelance video editor, that's going to be a whole lotta data downloaded. But if the devices in the house are ‘cloaked' by a VPN, the ISP doesn't know who is gobbling up all those gigabytes, nor indeed where they are located, so the user can't be throttled.
If you access the internet without a VPN, your ISP keeps logs of exactly which websites you visited and how long you stayed on them. Some people wouldn't object to that, but there are some folks who might be perhaps active trade unionists or members of political parties that some governments might deem to be subversive. If that were the case, law enforcement agencies can compel ISPs to hand over the logs of all their customers, which the spooks will trawl for what they regard as suspicious activity. But accessing any dark web corners via Google or Bing, or participating in banned political group forums can't be detected if the visitor uses a VPN to hide their location and identity.
Geographic content blocking
Several streaming platforms such as the UK's BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Disney Plus, to name just a few, impose geographical content restrictions on their programs. For example, access to the BBC's flagship iPlayer streaming platform is restricted only to UK residents as they must pay a TV license fee to use the service. But if you're a resident of the USA who likes to watch British TV shows, you can use a VPN server based in the UK direct from your laptop Stateside; the BBC website thinks you're in England and allows access to the content.
Similarly, if you are a US resident with a Netflix account, but you're on vacation in London, England, and you want to catch one of your favorite Netflix movies, the content won't be accessible outside the US. But again, the VPN can work its magic and Netflix thinks you're back home by the fireside in Florida.
Safe from the internet baddies
Ever been to a fast food joint and logged on to their password-free public Wi-Fi network? Doing so is about as secure as leaving your doors and windows wide open when you leave home for a weekend!
What you assume to be the public wi-fi network might well be that hacker geek sitting at a corner table in his hoodie, and you just logged onto his personal hotspot. He's monitoring your keystrokes and getting your passwords and credit card details as he sips his coffee. But a VPN would detect the connection as insecure, and the browser extension would disconnect the device the instant after you logged on. Using a VPN, your devices are much safer from malware, ransomware and other such viruses.
There is a commonly held theory, which most website owners deny, that you get to pay more for the same product if the shopping website ‘knows' you can afford it. It's known as ‘dynamic pricing'. If you visit a website selling hotel rooms and flight tickets, your internet protocol (IP) address is available to that website – so the website software knows where you are located and also checks your cookies to see if you are a return visitor.
If the destination website detects that you're trying to purchase a hotel room in NYC and you're based in Beverly Hills, it can assume that you are someone who is likely to be wealthy. However, if your IP address indicates that you're living in a dodgy suburb of Detroit, the displayed price could well be lower than what your Beverly Hills visitor was offered. By using a VPN, you can choose a server in another country, say India, where the price offered will almost certainly be lower than you'd pay at home.
Incognito ain't going to cut it…
Some folks think that using their browser on ‘incognito' or ‘private' mode can achieve all the things outlined above, but that's nowhere near the truth. All that incognito mode does is block ‘cookies' from your device and prevents the browser from adding any destination websites into the browser history. It certainly doesn't hide your device from the destination website nor anonymize the session as a VPN does.
In summary, there's really no reason not to use a VPN, whether you choose a free version or go for a premium platform with extra facilities is up to you, but to keep your devices fee of internet nasties and get the best experience from the internet, using a VPN is a no brainer.
About the author
Jacob Davis is a data analyst and strategist working in the Israeli startup tech space for the last decade, Soprano Media is one of his clients. Jacob specializes in turning unstructured alternative data into actionable decision-making. His passion is uncovering stories and trends in the digital space and turning data into stories.