Why VPNs Are Suddenly Everywhere, and How to Pick the Best One
Is a ‘private’ internet connection really worth it?
If you’ve listened to a podcast lately, you might have noticed that the ads for Stamps.com and internet-order mattresses have been superseded by endless advertisements for virtual private networks (VPNs), all explaining how important it is to get a secure connection of your own.
VPN companies promise to help protect you, but how can you know which of the many available services are trustworthy? And why the heck do you suddenly need one?
First, the reason there are so many ads is that running a VPN can be a highly profitable business. All it takes is setting up a bunch of servers, in different locations, which are shared across hundreds of users and cost a few hundred dollars to operate. Then just sit back and watch the subscription fees roll in.
But doing a VPN right isn’t so easy.
Some quick background: You might already be familiar with a VPN if you’ve worked in a corporate job. A company’s VPN will usually allow you to remotely connect to the tools you use for your job as if you were sitting in your seat at the office.
Think of connecting to a VPN like teleporting from one internet connection to another. When I’m on a VPN, instead of connecting to Medium.com as Owen in Amsterdam, it looks like I’m Owen from New York or Owen from Toronto. A VPN makes it appear, to anyone who’s observing, that you’re accessing the internet from another computer, not the one in front of you.
Plenty of prying eyes can monitor what you do online, from the internet service provider (ISP) you’re paying to take you online, like Comcast, to the cafe Wi-Fi you’re leeching from — and it’s hard to be sure that any of those parties can be trusted. With a VPN, the internet provider or Wi-Fi company can’t tell where the traffic is from or where it’s headed. To them, it just looks like a blob of anonymous data, headed off to a server.
Paid VPN services offer features like the ability to route your traffic through a network in the country of your choosing, which is handy if you really want to watch HBO and it’s not available in your country. (Though…