What is a VPN?

A set of shiny keys and a sleek, wireless, black keyboard rest on a clean wooden office desk while a padlock gleams on top of the keyboard.

Congress passed what?

This week Congress voted to overturn the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) privacy rules which were passed in October 2016. These privacy rules would have required Internet Service Providers (ISP) to get opt-in consent from consumers before sharing web browsing data and other private information with advertisers and other third parties.

What does that mean?

What you do online isn’t completely private right now, but you have a choice. Third-party companies like Facebook or Google make logs of how you use their sites. These companies can use your information in many ways, including selling that information to other third parties and advertisers. You can choose to not use these sites and therefore not share your information. However, most of us only have one choice for our ISP. Without the FCC’s privacy laws in place, your ISP will be able to inspect anything you do online. They will also be allowed to sell that information to anyone without your knowledge or consent.

You may have seen articles in your local paper about this vote in Congress. Many of those articles also mention Virtual Private Networks (VPN).

What is a VPN anyway?

A VPN is a tool people can use to access the internet without their ISP seeing what they’re doing online.

We have several different ways we can connect to the internet. For example, you could log on to a public WiFi spot that doesn’t require a password, such as at a coffee shop. If you did this, your connection would not be very secure. Anyone on the connection could look in on what you’re doing on your computer. This is why you should not access personal information, like bank accounts, when you’re on this type of WiFi connection. This type of connection is unencrypted.

Your home internet is more secure and encrypted. You have to have a password to log in. Outsiders cannot easily see the information sent from your computer, like they can on a public WiFi network. Generally speaking, only your ISP can see everything you’re doing online. When you've secured internet from this provider, you’ve agreed to trust them with your information. You believe that they've agreed to not share or sell your information without your permission.

In both of the examples, there is an entity that can watch what sites you visit and intercept that traffic. That entity can keep logs of all your activity. Virtual Private Networks (VPN's) solve this problem. A VPN can create a confidential and secure tunnel through the existing internet connection. They cloak any information that passes through the ISP, including which sites you visit. A good VPN won’t keep logs of your activity online or has a strict removal policy. Without these logs, there is no information available for them to share or sell about what you do online.

How do I find a VPN?

Finding a VPN to use can take some detective work! There are a lot of companies out there offering many different levels of service. It can seem like a daunting task. However, with some research, you can find the right one for you. The first place to look is at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Choosing the VPN That’s Right for You guide. After that, visit That One Privacy Site’s comparison chart. Select the top five categories that matter to you the most. Then sort the chart based on those criteria. Everyone has slightly different needs online. The chart can help you in choosing a VPN which meets your distinct privacy needs.

While you may come across free VPN sites, you should not trust them. Remember that if you ever use a free service, you are the product. However, most VPNs will allow you a short trial period for free. Make sure to test your new VPN before committing to a full subscription. One way to test your VPN is to see what speed you get through your ISP. Then test the speed again when connected to the VPN. Use a tool like Speed Test to accomplish this task.

More Ways to Take Control of Your Online Privacy

Hands holding online tools in the air.

No service is perfect. You have to trust your VPN or ISP not to keep logs of your activity online and/or sell those logs to 3rd parties. However, VPN's can be a valuable tool in your privacy toolbox.

To learn more about other steps you can take to maintain your privacy online, check out our Virtual Privacy Lab, available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. In the Construction Zone you can select a topic to learn about security and privacy online. Then you can build a personalized toolkit with links, tips, and resources.

If you want to dive right in, look at our Get Started Today page. This page has links to apps, websites, and browser extensions to help you stay more secure and private online.


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