There is a battle going on right now and our families are all right in the middle of it, whether you are aware of it or not. The battle is between two concepts. On one side are commercial companies and advertisers who are finding new and inventive ways to capitalize on the personal information they are currently able to freely and legally collect about you and your family. The other side of the battle is all of us who believe we still have a basic right to some privacy and at least some amount of control over our personal data. This article isn’t about who is right and who is wrong, it is more about what you can do if you want to try to give your family a little bit more privacy and take back a little of control over your personal data. Using a Virtual Private Network (or VPN service) is a relatively easy way to take back some of that control.
What is a VPN?
A VPN or Virtual Private Network is an encrypted tunnel between the internet access point you are using (whether that be your home router or the public Wi-Fi network at your local coffee shop) and the routers of the VPN service provider you are using. All internet traffic between the router you are connecting to and your VPN provider’s router is encrypted, meaning only you and your VPN provider can decrypt the content being transmitted (email traffic, websites you visit, etc).
The benefit of encrypting your internet traffic while at home is that your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which is probably your local cable company or a dedicated internet data company like AT&T, will not be able to view your internet traffic. To be more accurate, they can see your internet traffic because it is still going through their network, but because you have encrypted all the information, it is a bunch of useless characters unless you have the encryption key to decrypt the data stream (and only you and your VPN Service Provider have the decryption key). If you don’t encrypt your internet traffic while at home, the company providing you with internet service can collect information about you and sell that information to advertisers and other commercial entities. They have personal information like the websites you visit, the products you buy online, the content of your emails, and whether you are a DC or Marvel fan. As you can imagine, there is a ton of personal information your internet service provider can collect, and that information is very valuable to a lot of companies.
Using a VPN while on a Wi-Fi network away from home has an even more important purpose. When you connect to an open network (like the wi-fi at your local coffee shop, at an airport, or in a hotel), you are opening up your device to all sorts of IT security threats. It is possible for other people connected to that same Wi-Fi network to see everything you are doing on the internet. And if that isn’t scary enough, it is also possible for someone else on that open Wi-Fi network to spoof a popular website, like Facebook or Twitter, and steal your login credentials or even use that spoofed website as a vector to infect your device with malware. But if you use a VPN, it closes the door on all of those things because you have created a small and secure private network that only you are using–an internet tunnel built for one.
There is one downside to using a VPN and that is that you have to trust your VPN service provider. Your internet traffic is encrypted between you and your VPN provider, so all you have really done is shift the ability of people to see your internet traffic away from your local internet provider and over to your VPN service provider… so you need to pick a VPN service you can trust. Your VPN service provider has to decrypt your internet traffic and then send that information out unencrypted from their servers to its final destination. Luckily, you have a lot more choices in VPN providers than you do in internet service providers. (You’re lucky if you if you have one or two companies to choose from for getting internet service to your home!)
The information I provided above is my attempt at explaining the details associated with using a VPN. Please don’t just rely on the high-level summary I have written. Do your own research concerning VPN from multiple trusted sources before making any decisions about your online security. I am not an IT security expert, just a technology geek with a family that I am trying my best to protect.
Why use a VPN?
In explaining what a VPN is above, I went into some of the reasons you might want to use a VPN, but for completeness, I compiled a list of reasons why you might want to consider this for your family.
- Privacy with respect to your internet service provider: You are paying them for a service. If they want to harvest and sell your personal data, they should be either asking your permission or buying it from you.
- Security when using open/free Wi-Fi networks away from home: Using cellular data can be expensive and sometimes slow. If you have a VPN, you can use open or free Wi-Fi “hotspots” and not have to worry about security and privacy.
- Privacy with respect to your cellular provider: Your cell phone company can also see all of your internet traffic over their cellular network and sell that data just like your home internet service provider can.
- Browsing location dependent websites: Some sites and services are limited to and/or change content or format based on what that site detects as your geographical location. A common use is video streaming services that check to see if you are located in a region in which they have the rights to stream their content. But there are other examples as well such as websites that automatically display the language based on your location. Most VPN services allow you to specify the location of your assigned IP address when your data comes out the other end of the VPN tunnel. There are legitimate and legal uses for doing this, so use your own judgment if you choose to use this feature of a VPN.
The VPN service I have chosen for my family…
I had several international trips this summer and I needed to get a VPN service so I could connect to Wi-Fi while overseas and not have to worry about the security of those wireless networks. There are a ton of VPN services from which to choose (both free and paid). I am not about to recommend one service over another, as your individual needs for a service will ultimately determine what is the best choice for you and your family. I will give you a word of caution, though, when it comes to free VPN services; you have to ask yourself what their business model is. If they aren’t charging you for the service, then there must be some other reason for them to be offering you a service for free. Most people are looking for a VPN service as a way to increase both security and privacy, and if you aren’t paying someone to provide both of these things for you, can you really be sure you are getting both security and privacy? Use a free VPN service with extreme caution.
I read a lot of tech blogs and follow many tech experts on Twitter, and the consensus of the tech community I follow seems to be to use either a service called Tunnel Bear or a service called Encrypt.me (which used to be called “Cloak”). I ultimately chose Encrypt.me for three main reasons:
- Encrypt.me offered an option to buy 30-days of the service with unlimited data for $9.99, which is handy for me if I just wanted to use the service only for myself and only activate it when I needed to travel internationally.
- Encrypt.me has a feature that will automatically turn on the VPN when your device is connected to an “untrusted” network and then turn it off when you connect to a “trusted” network. This was a key feature, especially when using it with the rest of my family. If you don’t remember to turn it on then what’s the point in having the service? The VPN service needed to be totally transparent if the rest of my family was going to use it.
- Encrypt.me offered an unlimited data family plan for $12.99 a month. Buying each individual person in my family their own VPN service was going to be cost prohibitive and this family plan was only a few dollars more a month just a plan for me would cost.
I have a few closing thoughts on the topic of using a VPN for your family. If you are only considering the use of a VPN because you are angry that your internet service provider can freely collect and profit from your internet traffic, then you may ultimately not be very happy with a VPN service. I know that the idea of having to pay an extra monthly cost just to keep a company I was already paying for a service from profiting from my personal information was enough to make my blood boil. You are going to have to personally weigh whether the cost of a monthly VPN service is worth protecting your internet traffic from your internet service provider. But if you spend a lot of time away from your home connecting to wireless networks or do a lot of international travel, then I think the security benefits of a VPN alone are worth the cost of the monthly service. Being able to keep your internet traffic hidden from your internet service provider then becomes just an added bonus. A VPN service is not for everybody, but I wanted to at least share what I am doing with my family in case others out there are interested in it as well. Good luck and stay safe out there!
Disclaimer: This is not a paid advertisement or sponsored content for the Encrypt.me VPN service. I have NOT received any free services from this company and receive no benefits or financial gain if others choose to sign up for their service.