You may have heard about virtual private networks (VPNs) and wondered if your family could benefit from using one. VPNs are useful when using Wi-Fi networks that aren’t your own. Basically, any public Wi-Fi such as schools, cafes, airports, and other locations out of your home. VPNs have a few key benefits. Namely they help keep your family’s data safe from ISPs, cloak your location, and provide additional security against bad actors.
What follows is an introduction to VPNs and a guide on how to select a VPN for your family.
What’s a VPN?
As I mentioned in the introduction, VPN stands for virtual private network. An often used analogy is that of a tunnel. If the internet is a highway, which it kind of is for information, a VPN is a tunnel. Information travels along the “highway” which is actually servers and devices located all over the world.
Without a VPN your information is traveling along a wide-open highway. When you use a VPN your information now travels through the tunnel, away from prying eyes.
When using a VPN your data is never sent or received directly. Rather, it’s routed throug the VPN’s servers. Depending on the VPN you select you can send and receive packets from servers all over the world.
If your looking to explain a VPN to a younger child you can use the curtain analogy. Your house address is public. Many homes have numbers on the front and some are painted on the curb. However, you can install curtains or shutters to keep people from peering into your living room. A VPN is like the curtain or shutters.
Why Should You Use a VPN?
At this point many people react that they don’t need a VPN. They aren’t doing anything wrong online, so why pay to obfuscate your online activity?
Let’s keep with the curtain example. I didn’t install curtains on my front windows because I do anything bad in my home. I installed curtains because I don’t want people walking by and seeing me watching football in my underwear (sorry for that visual, folks).
The point is that you are most likely a good person who has nothing to hide. That’s good! But you and your family also deserve privacy which is why you should consider a VPN for your family.
The leading reasons for using a VPN are:
- Enhanced privacy/security
- Getting around geographic restrictions
Admittedly, for those of us in the U.S. at least, the second option might not be as valid. If you’ve ever been out of the country and tried to access a site only to be blocked, however, you know the value of a VPN for people in other countries.
Security Reasons to Use a VPN
First let’s get something straight. Using a VPN does not make you invisible online. If you are up to no good, using a VPN won’t make you anonymous.
A VPN will help keep your data in transit more secure. This is really the prime benefit of using a VPN. Time for another example.
You’re at a coffee shop getting some work done and need to fill out a form for your kid’s school. You go to the school site and complete the form providing names, addresses, and ages. A simple click and the form is sent without any further thought.
The issue in the above example is that a cafe internet connection can be compromised. A bad actor listening in could intercept your communication and have access to sensitive information.
Using a VPN would have enforced military-grade encryption on the data. So that same bad actor could intercept the message, but it would appear to be jumbled information and not useful.
How To Select a VPN For Your Family
Selecting a VPN for your family can be tricky business. I’ll provide a few tips that I follow when reviewing providers.
Beware of Free
Free is so appealing. Who doesn’t want something for nothing? Unfortunately, life doesn’t like to give out freebies too frequently.
If you come across a free VPN be sure to read the fine print if you want to use their services. Many free providers will serve you ads. Others will monitor your activity and then sell it to data brokers and other firms.
While shelling out money isn’t fun it can help reduce the risk of working with a low-quality VPN service. Providers that maintain their own servers and have been in business a number of years have expenses. It’s understandable that they would then need to charge for their services. Typical rates will be $75/year though many providers offer discounts for multi-year subscriptions. Even with a reasonably priced VPN the opportunity for abuse still exists. This is why trust is the next big consideration when selecting a provider.
Does the Provider Log Your Activity?
Like I said above, trust is huge when selecting a VPN service.
One topic you need to review is whether the provider will maintain connection logs of your activity. Some providers pride themselves on offering a fully anonymous service. They don’t keep connection logs and, thus, are unable to provide them to governments or risk access by a bad actor.
Other providers will keep logs, but only surrender them in the event of extreme abuse. Conducting illegal activities online would fall under the definition of extreme abuse.
The final category of provider is one that should be avoided. These “VPNs” actively keep logs and also analyze your traffic all in the name of providing a better user experience. If you’re logging my activity and tracking my traffic then why should I pay for a VPN service? Don’t waste your money with this final category of providers.
Types of Logs
Should you come across a VPN you want to use, but read that they collect logs it’s worthwhile to dig a bit deeper. Not all logs are created equal.
Connection logs are used to track the amount of data that is transferred and the times connected. The actual content of the transfer isn’t tracked. Realistically most VPN service providers keep connection logs. It just is part of maintaining a network of servers.
Usage logs aren’t so nice. These logs do track your online activity during your session. If you see a provider who admits to keeping usage logs then keep searching for a new service.
Using a VPN
Let’s say you’ve found the perfect VPN. The company is trustworthy with a solid operating history. You feel the price is reasonable and you’re ready to use the service. You’ve mastered the first part, how to select a VPN for your family. Now you just need to know how to use the darn thing.
While each service is slightly different most VPNs operate the same way. Once you’ve paid your fee you are able to download an app for your mobile or computer. You’ll be required to create an account with the standard username and password (tips for a strong password).
When it’s time to use the VPN you’ll launch the app and select a server you want to use. Know that if you pick a foreign server your search results may appear foreign. I can’t tell you how many times I connect to a foreign server, such as Spain, and conduct a search only to have the results in Spanish. If you’re the adventurous type this can be a bit of fun!
Depending on the service you selected the VPN might have “quick connect” options. These connect you to any server quickly. Others let you select the specific geo location you’d like to connect to. Speeds play a big factor so be sure to pay attention to servers with heavy traffic as your queries may be returned slower.
Finally, disconnecting from the VPN is as easy as clicking the “disconnect” button.
As dads we want to protect our families. Most of us wouldn’t consider going to sleep with a door unlocked. We tend to think about physical threats, but not the digital ones. With our lives increasingly online it’s necessary to think about cyber risks in our daily lives.
Using a VPN won’t make you immune to malware or prevent your smartphone from collecting telemetry data. However, it can help keep information sent over the information highway secure via encryption.
Learning how to select a VPN for your family can be a fun and rewarding experience! To aid in your search checkout Wirecutter’s list of best VPN services.