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With a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different country and spoof your location. One of the ways to determine where an internet-connected machine is located is to look at its IP address.

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Description

VPNs have gone from being an obscure networking concept to big business. You’ve probably seen the ads from your favorite YouTuber, on podcasts, and even during the Superbowl with claims about how a VPN can make you anonymous or let you access free video streaming. Do the products live up to the hype? Although VPNs can be useful tools for protecting your privacy, it’s important to understand how these tools work so you can decide whether they will help you. We break down what VPNs do and what they don’t do to help you understand why you’d want one and how to pick the one that’s best for you.

What Is a VPN?

VPN stands for virtual private network. When we talk about VPNs, we’re usually talking about a commercial VPN being sold directly to consumers for use in day-to-day life, but the idea of VPNs has much broader applications than that. Corporations have long used VPN technology to let workers access digital resources no matter where they are, long before COVID-19 made work from home the norm.

When you switch on a VPN, it creates an encrypted connection (sometimes called a “tunnel”) between your device and a remote server operated by the VPN service. All your internet traffic is routed through this tunnel to the server, which then sends the traffic off to the public internet as usual. Data coming back to your device makes the same trip: from the internet, to the VPN server, through the encrypted connection, and back to your machine.

How a VPN Works

Keep in mind that you don’t need another company to set up a VPN. There are a few options out there to set up your own, such as Outline. Doing so is fairly straightforward, but you’ll either need to maintain a server or rent one, which is less simple. While there are some efforts to make self-hosted VPNs more accessible, it’s something best left to tinkerers who are eager to get their hands (digitally) dirty.

Do VPNs Make You Anonymous Online?

By encrypting your traffic and routing it through a VPN server, it is harder but not impossible for observers to identify you and track your movements online. No VPNs provide total anonymity, but they can help improve your privacy.

For example, your internet service provider (ISP) is probably the single entity with the most insight into what you do online. The FTC issued a report in 2021 outlining exactly how much your ISP knows about what you do online, and it’s a lot. Worse, thanks to Congress, your ISP can sell anonymized data about its customers. If you don’t like that a company you’re already paying is profiting from your data or if you have concerns about ISPs hoarding detailed information about your activities, a VPN will help. Not even your ISP can see your web traffic when you use a VPN.

VPNs also make it harder for advertisers and others to track you online. Normally, data is transmitted from the internet to your device using its IP address. When the VPN is active, your true IP address is hidden, and anyone watching you can only see the IP address of the VPN server. By hiding your real IP address, VPNs deny snoops one tool used to identify and track you online.

Despite that, VPNs do not make you fully anonymous online. Advertisers, for instance, have numerous ways to identify and track you as you move across the web. Trackers and cookies in websites try to uniquely identify you, and then watch for where you appear next.

Sites and advertisers can also identify you by noting several unique characteristics, such as browser version, screen size, and so on. On their own, this information is harmless, but when companies compile enough of these identifiers, they form a unique signature—so much so that the process is called browser fingerprinting.

That’s not to mention the privacy we give up in exchange for services. Amazon, Google, and Meta (formerly Facebook) have become pillars of the modern internet infrastructure, and are impossible to completely avoid. Even if you deleted all your accounts and never used them again, they’d still probably be able to harvest data on you.

These privacy threats require tools other than VPNs. Ad and tracker blockers, like those found in some browsers or as standalone tools like the EFF’s Privacy Badger, address some of these concerns.

Using Tor can guard your privacy even better than a VPN, and grant you access to the Dark Web. Unlike a VPN, Tor bounces your traffic through several volunteer server nodes, making it much harder to trace. It’s also managed by a nonprofit organization and distributed for free. Some VPN services will even connect to Tor via VPN, making this arcane system easier to access. The cost to your internet connection is high, however, as using Tor will degrade your connection much more than a VPN. Tor isn’t perfect either, and it too has plenty of weaknesses to consider.

Keep in mind that law enforcement and government agencies have access to more advanced and invasive techniques. Given enough time, a determined, well-funded adversary can usually get what it’s after.

Do VPNs Protect Against Malware?

Several VPNs say they include some protection against malicious files. Sometimes this is basic protection against known malicious sites and files. Some VPN services include dedicated antivirus tools as well, and some antivirus companies now offer VPNs.

We don’t typically test the malware-detecting abilities of VPNs, since we view VPNs primarily as a privacy service. To address the threat of malware, we believe standalone anti-malware software—whether it’s one you buy or the one that ships with your computer—does a better job. We believe that VPNs should be paying as little attention to your web traffic as possible.

Do VPNs Keep You Safe Online?

A VPN will hide the contents of your web traffic from some observers and can make it harder for you to be tracked online. But a VPN can, at best, provide only limited protection against the threats you’re most likely to encounter on the web: malware, social engineering scams, and phishing sites.

There are better ways to address these threats. Your browser has built-in tools for detecting phishing sites, and so do most antivirus apps, so pay attention when you see a warning. Use common sense if you see a suspicious pop-up window or receive an unusual email prompting you to take some action. Many people reuse passwords and use weak passwords, so get a password manager to generate and store unique and complex passwords for each site and service you use. Finally, protect your online accounts and enable multi-factor authentication wherever it’s available.

Can VPNs Bypass Censorship?

With a VPN, it’s possible to connect to a VPN server in another country and browse the web as if you were physically where the VPN server is. This can, in some cases, get around local content restrictions and other kinds of censorship. It’s easily the noblest use of a VPN, and VPN companies will often play up their role in protecting internet freedom.

Although it should work, it’s important to know that a VPN doesn’t make your traffic invisible. Observers can see encrypted traffic, but they shouldn’t be able to see the contents of the traffic. However, the encrypted traffic alone might attract unwanted attention. Some VPNs include modes that aim to disguise VPN traffic as more common HTTPS traffic.

We don’t test the ability of VPNs to bypass censorship and have grave concerns endorsing a VPN service for this ability could put people’s lives at risk if we got it wrong. Simply using a VPN may get you into legal hot water depending on where you are, so know the risks before you try. Remember, no tool can provide total protection, particularly against a well-funded and capable adversary—a nation-state, for example.

Can VPNs Spoof Your Location?

With a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different country and spoof your location. One of the ways to determine where an internet-connected machine is located is to look at its IP address. These addresses are distributed geographically and can sometimes be quite close to your true location. By hiding your true IP address behind the IP address of a VPN server, your true location can be obscured.

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Mullvad VPN, FastVPN, Surfshark VPN, PrivateVPN

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Good quality.Good service.The product is firmly packed.Very fast delivery.Very well worth the money.

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