If you’re a bit of a techie then VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) probably aren’t anything new. Instead, there’s a good chance that they’re already an integral part of your setup and somewhat old hat. If, however, you think megabytes are more to do with shark attacks than computers, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. So, we’re going to examine what they are and why 1 in 6 Brits now use them.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a tool – often a subscription service – that increases your privacy and security by helping you to access the internet over an encrypted connection. VPNs operate using a number of computer networks dotted around the globe called servers, which re-route your online activities via alternate IP addresses and locations and add a ‘tunnel’ of encryption to keep data secure.

Your IP address is a unique identifier (sort of like a license plate) that allows others to identify your device, its activity and where you are. When you’re using a VPN, the re-routing of your connection means that sites you visit will only see the IP address and location of the VPN server you’re using, rather than the real thing. Ultimately, this allows you to surf the web anonymously, in addition to the secure tunnel of end-to-end encryption that protects you from cyber attacks.

Being able to choose from servers across the globe also means that you can give the appearance of connecting to the internet from anywhere in the world, as long as it’s on your VPN provider’s network. This is how many people choose to circumvent certain geo-restrictions on sites like Netflix and HBO.

Cyber security

VPNs aren’t just a must-have for lovers of American Netflix, they’re also a great way of protecting yourself against malware and cyber attacks.

But how? Well, say you run out of data and go to the nearest café to connect to the Internet. You join the queue, buy yourself a latte and ask for the Wi-Fi password. Once connected, you open some emails, do a bit of online shopping and post a few tweets – hurrah! But then you get home and none of your passwords are working, money is missing from your account and you can’t access your social media.

This is a worst case scenario, but the lack of encryption on public Wi-Fi networks does make them a hotbed for cyber crime, because they are far easier to hack than your conventional home network. Using a VPN on all your devices (yes, even your phone) can mitigate many of these dangers by adding an extra layer of encryption around your activity.

The end-to-end encryption a VPN provides means that if a hacker were to try and access your activity, all they’d see are a load of nonsensical encryption keys – strings of seemingly random numbers and letters – rather than things like your personal emails or bank details.

Staying in touch with friends and family

Living in the age of social media has its ups and down, but one of the best parts of modern life is being able to stay in touch with friends and family no matter the distance. That is, unless you happen to live in a part of the world that blocks VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services like Skype and Facetime.

VoIP bans are in place all over the world, from parts of Africa to areas in the Middle East and East Asia, which can make keeping in touch with friends and family costly.

However, with a VPN your loved ones can hide their real IP address and connect to the internet from a server and IP in a different location. This allows them to access the same free services that are available in that location, putting long-distance calls with gran back on the table.

Targeted Ads

Have you ever been stalked by targeted ads before? If not, count yourself lucky.

Targeted ads work by collecting data about you, like your age, gender and income, and combining that information with details from your browser history and online activity to build a detailed picture of who you are, and which products you are likely to buy. Advertisers can then target your IP address with specific marketing campaigns.

Targeted ad campaigns are a nuisance and do nothing but remind you of the times you considered buying a dodgy Christmas jumper or an overpriced sandwich toaster. Installing a VPN on your device can help you to get rid of those pesky ads and forget about past fashion choices once and for all, by ensuring your browsing activity can’t be tracked.

You can also use a VPN to grab geo-specific deals that aren’t available in your location, in the same way as you might use one for VoIP calls – by connecting to a server in the country you want to shop in, so that it looks like that’s where you’re browsing from.

Bypass bandwidth throttling 

Bandwidth throttling is something ISPs (Internet Service Providers) do to keep their networks clear. Regrettably, this usually involves monitoring your online activity and limiting your bandwidth when you do something data heavy, like streaming. It also means that you can spend a lot more time waiting for a TV show to load then actually watching it.

If you’re fed up with watching the loading screen more than your favourite TV show, installing a VPN on your device will mean you’re less likely to have your bandwidth throttled and can make for smoother, faster browsing.

How does this work? When you hide your activities with a VPN, you aren’t just dodging targeted ads. You’re also stopping ISPs from knowing whether you’re using tonnes of bandwidth or the bare minimum, meaning they can’t throttle your connection in accordance with your use.

Using a VPN on your device is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family and keep up with the latest offerings from across the Atlantic. They’re also pretty indispensable if you’re a fan of using your local coffee shop’s free Wi-Fi, or downloading songs and movies without your ISP curbing your broadband speed.

Most importantly, with cyber attacks and large-scale data breaches on the rise, protecting yourself online has never been more important. Taking the time to look at which VPN services are available to you, and considering which one you might use to encrypt your personal data, could be as vital as using a strong password when it comes to staying safe against cyber crime.