What is a VPN… and Do I Need One?

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Online privacy is a growing concern for many Americans as we all become increasingly dependent upon computers and mobile devices to get through our everyday lives. The federal government recently repealed online privacy rules that required internet service providers to obtain customer permission prior to using or selling their “sensitive” data for targeted advertising revenue. The data in question includes geolocation, browsing history and even medical and financial information.

As a result, many Americans are looking for ways to maintain control over their private internet usage information. Security experts have long recommended that internet users consider investing in a virtual private network, or VPN, if they are concerned about maintaining a level of anonymity while online.

When using a VPN, requests from your computer are encrypted and sent to a VPN provider. The VPN provider then forwards the encrypted request to the website you are browsing. As a result, internet service providers are unable to identify your online activity, and thereby sell your information for profit. Additionally, the websites you visit are unable to access your IP address, and instead only see a request from your VPN.

It is important to note, however, that true anonymity cannot be accomplished through a VPN alone. If, perchance, you were singled out and targeted, individuals with skill and intent (e.g., hackers or the U.S. National Security Agency) can spend the time and resources necessary to piece together your search history. However, the broad sweeping data collection that is routinely conducted by government and private entities, both foreign and domestic, will have trouble picking up your internet activity if you are using a VPN.

In addition to increased privacy and password protection through data encryption, VPNs offer other perks, particularly to travelers. For example, a VPN allows users to remotely connect to their home network to access files, photos and programs. And if traveling abroad, a user can access blocked content, i.e., geographically-based internet filtering, via their VPN. This capability grants users access to everything from filtered articles to TV and movie selections on platforms like Netflix, Hulu and HBO.

Binge watching after a day of fun and sun on a tropical beach vacation without Big Brother watching? Yes, please!

By Aricka Flowers-Turck, 2016-17 Topics & Trends Staff Member

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