(Pocket-lint) - VPNs work by acting as a middleman between your computer, phone or home network and the wider internet. 

They act as a gatekeeper, offering an encrypted connection. This essentially masks your machine or physical network’s actual IP address and can make it appear you're browsing the internet from a completely different location.

In a world where government snooping, data harvesting, and cybercrime make browsing the internet and accessing online services a less private and safe undertaking, virtual private networks (VPNs) are becoming more popular to get back unrestricted and private access to the web.

Everyday internet use, from Google searches and Amazon browsing through to Twitch streaming and accessing Spotify, requires data to be sent from a PC, laptop, home network, games console, smartphone, tablet or any other internet-connected device, to the server hosting the website or service you’re accessing.

As it makes its way to the target server, that data flows onto the broadband infrastructure of your internet service provider (ISP) and then onto the wider network that connects the globe’s internet together.

While this allows you to access the wealth of information the web has to offer, it also potentially exposes your IP address to all manner of people; from major organisations and governments to more nefarious hackers and cybercriminals.

These days VPNs are very easy to setup, but you may be wondering why you should consider using one; well there are numerous reasons.

Protecting privacy

Go for a quick browse on the web and you'll likely notice adverts on websites tend to follow you around or you’ll see pop up boxes alerting you to tracking cookies; basically there are a lot of websites that can track your browsing activity by following your machine’s IP address. Harvested browsing data can be collected by your ISP or search engines like Google and Bing, then sold to advertisers who can then target you with their ads.

Some people might not feel too concerned about such tracking, but it does eat away at your internet privacy and could result in serving up embarrassing ads when someone else is using your laptop or peeking over your shoulder as your browse.

More disturbing still is the ability for governments to track your IP address and browsing habits, particularly if you are accessing sites within a country with an oppressive regime. And hackers can also snoop on your activity, possibly tracking back your IP address to your computer or network then launching cyber attacks against them.

By using a VPN you can hide your actual IP address and make use of an encrypted connection to the internet, which keeps you hidden from preying virtual eyes and helps avoid search engine logging. Even if snoopers did manage to unearth the IP address of your connection, all they would see is an address linked to the VPN service not an IP address that can be traced back to you.

Furthermore, if you’re using an online voice or video calling app like Skype or Zoom, you can further protect yourself against hackers.

The private and encrypted connections VPNs provide can also help protect you when using an unsecure open public Wi-Fi network or hotspot which can be pretty easy for hackers to lurk on in order to see and intercept your data, due to a lack of encryption or user authentication on such networks.

Beat the blocks

Not only do some governments have the potential to snoop your internet activity, but they can also impose blocks on certain websites or services, for example, China prevents access to various services like social networks and WhatsApp. 

Thanks to being able to spoof the location of your computer with a VPN using a technique called geo-spoofing, you can make it look like you are not in the country you are browsing from and access the sites you want not just the ones a regime allows you to visit.

VPNs can also be the key to getting around draconian network restrictions at work or in academic institutions, such as blocking access to YouTube or Gmail. While you have to be a little careful violating "acceptable use" network policies some organisations might apply, a VPN acts as a tunnel underneath such restrictions. The flipside to this is a VPN can also be used to securely access work and academic networks and systems when you’re working from home or out of the office.

Access more

Speaking of geo-spoofing, being able to make it appear like you’re in a different country allows you to bypass region locks on online services, notably Netflix and Now TV, which restrict or vary the type of content you can see when you’re in a different nation to where you setup your account. For example, US Netflix has a wider and fresher range of movies and TV series than its UK equivalent.

You will need to configure connected devices like smart TVs and smartphones to geo-spoof their location, but once you’re setup you can stream away to your heart’s content.

Downloads on the down low

Peer-to-peer file downloading and uploading can be a bit of a grey area in both the face of the law and various moral points of views. As such, ISPs, authorities, various regulators, cinema and music companies can take a dim view of the use of peer-to-peer services and potentially persecute people for using them, whether they are doing so legally or illegally.

Once again the ability for VPNs to mask your IP address and location, means you are free to use these services at your leisure.

Upload and download speed may take a minor hit as data must pass through the VPN service first, but at least you remain hidden from view, and you are protected from opportunistic hackers who might want to use the popularity of peer-to-peer networks to seek out new victims for cybercrime or hack attacks.

The small print

VPNs offer a lot of advantages often for not a lot of money, but there are a few caveats to consider. Firstly, while VPNs are legal to use on the whole, some online service providers aren’t too happy with their use and will try and clamp down on people trying to use geo-spoofing to get around their region locks.

Some governments and organisations want to ban VPNs - some VPNs have seen a significant slowdown in service speeds in China during 2020. 

And it's worth noting that some VPNs done have a zero data collection policy and will log your activity, meaning you are shifting trust in maintaining your privacy from your ISP to the VPN company; also some VPNs don’t offer encrypted connections and inject advertising malware into the user’s service, meaning they may not be as secure as they claim.

Routing your path to the internet through a VPN can also introduce latency to your connection slowing down activities like streaming and downloading.

The answer to the above is to choose a reputable VPN service; that might mean paying a little extra but you’re more likely to get a service that’s easy to use and you are happy with rather than be left with a dud option.

Despite these caveats, VPNs are still useful tools and services to consider, particularly when you’re abroad. There’s a lot to choose from but do a little research and pick wisely, and you’ll soon be enjoying unrestricted access to the internet in near perfect privacy.

Writing by Steve Dye.