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There are dozens of VPN services out there. Choose any of these to keep your online activities private and secure.
It's no surprise that most people would prefer to stay invisible on the internet, to keep their identity and activities hidden from theft-minded hackers. Unfortunately, it's not immediately obvious how to make that happen. You might think anti-virus software is the key to safety, or that internet service providers (ISPs) have measures in place to keep your connection secure.
Wrong on both counts. Although there's no such thing as absolute internet privacy and security, there's one tool you should think about adding to your arsenal: a virtual private network, or VPN.
What a VPN does and why you should use one
This is one of those things that sounds complicated but really isn't. Imagine you're tooling down the highway in your car, you and hundreds of other drivers. A hacker is flying overhead in a helicopter; he can easily pinpoint your location and follow you everywhere you go. You're totally unprotected.
Now imagine you're driving in a tunnel instead, one that's just for your car. The hacker can't see you, doesn't even know you're there. You're effectively invisible.
When you connect to an open Wi-Fi network at, say, a coffee shop or on an airplane, you're driving that unprotected highway. But when you use a VPN — a combination of software and service — you're in a tunnel. It's virtually impossible for a hacker to detect you, monitor you or steal anything from you.
VPN pros and cons
Let me pause to make something clear: A VPN will not protect you from viruses, nor from things like phishing threats or ransomware. Its sole function is to hide your internet activities from observers who might wish to track them for identity theft or other purposes.
Here's the good news: If you work primarily at home, you probably don't need a VPN. That's because you're connecting to your own private Wi-Fi network; as long as it's reasonably secure (starting with password-protection), a VPN would be overkill. It's the open, public networks out in the world that pose the biggest threat. (That said, if you live in an apartment and you're, um, borrowing Wi-Fi from a neighbor, you're definitely vulnerable.)
A VPN helps keep your online activities private, which is especially important when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks. (Photo: Getty Images)
There are a couple other caveats to using a VPN. First, because your internet connection now routes through a secure server (the aforementioned "tunnel"), there's a performance hit. You might find that sites load a little slower or that video streaming isn't quite as reliable. Public Wi-Fi networks tend to be on the slow side to begin with; this added layer of protection can make them even slower.
Second, the VPN service itself may collect non-personal data about your browsing activities and may even sell that data to third parties. (I know, quite the irony.) Note that your ISP probably does this as well, so you'll have to decide whether this is important or not. If it is, choose a VPN that doesn't log user activity or share data with third parties.
Finally, there's cost: Most VPNs require a monthly or annual subscription fee. There are a couple decent free ones out there, but they do have limitations — and they're much more likely to log/sell your data.