- VPNS are a simple, cost-effective way to keep your identity safe online.
- They allow you to enjoy access to region-specific online services, wherever you are.
- Users can maintain anonymity when using public Wi-Fi networks.
- Free VPNs compromise on security and performance and you can’t be sure how your data is being used.
Paid VPNs – or ‘virtual private networks’ – are pieces of software that allow Internet users to mask their identity online and fool websites or streaming services into thinking that a request for data has originated from a different geographical region than where the user actually is.
VPN services have been developed by private organizations to combat the increasing amount of encroachment on user data by government organizations and cybercriminals, and to counteract the growing trend of region-based data access policies emanating from large, subscription-based media services (Netflix, YouTube) and SaaS providers.
Individual VPN platforms often span thousands of dedicated servers, across multiple cities and global regions, all of which require a significant amount of maintenance and development. Fast, reliable VPN services aren’t free, but they are relatively inexpensive for what they offer.
We’re going to take a look at why paying for a VPN service is well worth the cost. We’ll take you through some of the key features of a paid VPN service, before exploring the dangers of using a free VPN.
Common Features of a Paid VPN
All VPN services – free or paid – share the ability to mask a user’s IP address from their Internet Service Provider (ISP) and route traffic through a specific global region.
In addition to this, paid VPN services offer a variety of features that maintain privacy and enhance their basic offering:
A kill-switch works by disconnecting (or ‘killing’) your Internet connection if your VPN drops, ensuring that your IP address isn’t visible to the wider world, at point of disconnection.
While functionality differs between applications, paid VPN services are available on a wide range of desktop and mobile operating systems, including Windows, iOS and Linux.
On a basic level, DNS – or Domain Name System – is a system for converting textual Internet addresses into numeric IP addresses that are recognizable across the Internet. VPN providers mask user browsing activity by offering DNS servers that convert data anonymously without identifying user activity.
VPN platforms are independent entities who are governed by the data laws of the country they are registered in. Legislation differs from region to region, but some providers are under no legal obligation to hand over your information to the relevant authorities.
Benefits of a Paid VPN
Using a paid VPN service offers numerous benefits to Internet users who are looking to circumvent region-specific access rules and keep their information away from prying eyes and would-be criminals.
For a small monthly cost (the average VPN service costs just under $10 per month), you’re enhancing your browsing experience by increasing the amount of online services you have access to and giving yourself the best possible chance of stopping your data from falling into the wrong hands.
1. IP masking
There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to keeping your browsing habits secret online. The need for privacy does not indicate any malicious or criminal activity on the part of the user. If anything, it’s the mark of a responsible Internet user. Hackers intercept IP addresses and use them in a number of different ways – from establishing where someone lives, to gaining unauthorized access to a device or initiating a so-called DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack. A VPN service anonymizes the practice of browsing the Internet and prevents your personal information from being used against you.
2. Public WiFi protection
Public Wi-Fi hotspots are focal points for cybercriminals looking to exploit weaknesses in unsecured hardware such as routers or wireless access points. Hackers use a variety of methods to extract information from unsuspecting users including ‘evil twin’ attacks that attempt to fool the user into connecting to compromised routers, to ‘wireless sniffing’ techniques that mine the information of every device connected to the network. VPNs combat these methods by sending traffic back and forth on the Internet using private ‘tunnels’, that prevent unauthorized personnel from obtaining your information and keep your IP address private.
3. Protection from ISPs
ISPs aren’t generally interested in the browsing habits of every single customer, unless they’re compelled to investigate user activity by a law enforcement agency or they otherwise have reason to believe something untoward is going on. That being said, some users and influential tech business leaders consider it a moral imperative for browsing activity to remain anonymous, as a point of principle.
ISPs are able track the following information:
- Browsing history
- Search queries
- Email metadata
- Downloaded applications
While it’s true that most of this data is protected via HTTPS encryption, there is still a lot to be said for protecting your online activity by using a VPN that provides total anonymity.
4. Enhanced encryption
One of the primary features of a VPN should be to stop any attempt to intercept, read or block your Internet connection. It achieves this primarily through the use of encrypted data transfers. When you use them to connect to a website, VPNs use the following three main methods to encrypt your data and render it useless to unauthorized personnel.
AES encryption (symmetric encryption)
Public key encryption
5. Accessing region-specific services
If you’ve used Netflix, Amazon Prime or YouTube to stream content, you’re likely familiar with the scenario of not being able to access a movie or TV show based on the region you’re trying to access it from. VPNs fool streaming platforms into thinking that a user is from a different country than where they’re actually accessing services from, enabling subscribers to enjoy content from different global regions.
The One Drawback of All VPNs: Speed Issues
There’s no getting away from it – using a VPN is noticeably slower than not using one. As data is transferred around multiple server ‘hops’ around the world, it slows down a user’s Internet connection to a speed less than it would be, were they to be utilizing a standard ISP Internet connection.
There are multiple factors that dictate how fast your VPN connection is, from the physical distance between your computer and your chosen server to the level of encryption you’ve selected, the relative capacity of the VPN server and how many connections it reliably supports.
It’s essentially a trade-off between privacy and connectivity.
Drawbacks of a Free VPN
We’ll start with the one and only advantage of using a free VPN … they’re free.
In general, free VPNs should be avoided like the plague. Robust, secure VPN services cost money to provide and maintain. It’s impossible to know where a free VPN is compromising on security and performance, or how your data is being used.
Free VPNs rely on advertising to generate revenue. That means you’re going to be bombarded with annoying pop-ups left right and centre as you try to navigate your way around the application.
Most alarmingly, a recent study has shown that 72% of VPNs embed 3rd party tracking software within their application, which is precisely the opposite of what a VPN should be doing!
We could go on and talk about data caps, bandwidth re-selling and their poor performance alongside streaming services, but the bottom line is that free VPNs aren’t doing what they claim to be doing.
Top Paid VPN Applications
NordVPN is the market-leader in consumer VPN services. The application consistently ranks first in speed and connectivity tests, and due to it being registered in Panama, is not subject to the same strict set of data governance laws as its major competitors. Prices start from $11.95 per month and fall to as little as $8.25 if you sign up for an annual plan.
ExpressVPN boasts an enormous number of VPN servers (3,000) across 160+ locations worldwide. When it comes to privacy and security, the company enjoys an impressive record and although it is marginally slower than NordVPN, the underlying functionality is more or less the same, making it a top choice for VPN users all over the world.
Surfshark models itself on being the easiest to use VPN service available on the market. The service is available across a staggering 32,000 global servers, servicing 65 regions. While it lacks the functionality of some of the industry’s big players, its simple, user-friendly interface has proved popular with consumers for years.