What’s a VPN, and do I need one?

What is a VPN and do I need one icon

Someone told me that if I want to keep my web history private, I need to use a VPN. What’s a VPN, and how do I get one?

Katya Z, via email

So it's fair to say that the Investigatory Powers Act - also flatteringly known as the Snoopers' Charter - has got a lot of internet users a bit concerned about our web privacy. And yes, one solution that a lot of people are turning to is using a VPN service. Let's take a look at what exactly that means.

What is a VPN?

It's a virtual private network.

When you use the internet normally, a request goes from your computer, to your router, to your broadband provider's servers, and then on to the server that provides the website or service you want to use. Therefore, your broadband provider is able to see exactly what website or service your device is requesting, since the request is going through their servers.

Networking without a VPN

With a VPN, however… your traffic is encrypted, and sent to the VPN supplier's serverinstead of directly to the website. The VPN unencrypts the data, works out what the request is, and sends it on to the website. The exact same kind of encryption happens when the website sends data back to you.

Networking with a VPN

In this case, your broadband provider is able to see that you've sent a request to a VPN, but it can't see exactly what you've sent, because it's encrypted.

Lots of major companies and multinational organisations use VPNs, as do a lot of individuals who handle sensitive data. It means their networking is more secure and less likely to be intercepted or hacked.

Is it illegal to use a VPN?

Cyber criminal

No. It's perfectly legal to use or run a VPN in the UK, provided it complies with all relevant laws in the place where it operates. In fact, using one is encouraged in some cases - those multinational companies who want a secure way for employees to access data, for instance.

So should I get one?

If you're concerned about privacy, hacking, or the IP Act's surveillance powers, a VPN is a simple and secure solution.

We would recommend using one if:

  • You're super protective of your privacy, despite not really having anything to hide.
  • You regularly handle sensitive data that hackers might want.
  • You're a good mate of Edward Snowden.

We wouldn't recommend using one if:

  • You want to cover up illegal activities. Illegal activities are illegal, so we don't recommend doing those - and if you're breaking the law you can get caught (or hacked, for that matter) via all kinds of means, VPN or no VPN.
  • You want to use certain regional streaming services, such as Netflix. Most of them block a lot of VPNs. (In some cases it's fine though - you'll want to give this a quick research before signing up to a VPN.)
  • Your internet is super slow. Sending all your traffic via a VPN can slow it down even more.
Ethernet cable

How do I get a VPN?

Most VPN suppliers work on a subscription service, so all you really need to do is go on their website and sign up. Once you've set up an account, you'll have to install some software on your device, and pick where you want to appear to be coming from - a useful feature for watching Dutch Netflix, but not a whole lot else. And boom, your device is now accessing the internet via a VPN.

Pricing tends to be in the region of a fiver a month, with an astounding variety of payment methods: standard credit card, cash in the post, Amazon gift cards, obscure cryptocurrencies like dogecoin, you name it. Some services are free, but they might be slow or unreliable, collect your data, or have restrictive download limits.

For a bit of help choosing a VPN provider, take a look at PC Advisor's reviews and TorrentFreak's breakdown of their security and data retention policies. Remember to think about what level of data protection you want, which devices it'll work with, how much bandwidth you need, and, most importantly, where the VPN is based.

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