A look at VPN's and why you probably need one

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VPN's or Virtual Private Networks are not new by any means, but they are gaining more attention from the general public, particularly with the rise of remote workers and freelancers. Historically, they were mainly used to "tunnel" into private networks from public networks. Take your companies intranet for example. Normally, these are closed and secure networks within your company and they can only be reached from a local workstation physically somewhere in the building.

This is where VPN's come into play. If you were working from home, then you would simply log in to your companies VPN set up by your friendly neighborhood system admin, and you would be given access to the local network through a secure "tunnel".

These days however, they have moved beyond the corporate office and into the more mainstream public sector and they are more accessible than in the past. No system admin required.

Why do you need one?

The world is getting more connected by the day on a global level. As more and more humans get their hands on cellular technology and on computing devices, the environment needs to change as well to allow for it. A few reasons why you might want to set up a VPN account are:

- Avoid content restrictions (geo-blocking)
- Reduce the amount of personal tracking from ad networks
- Reduce censorship
- Increase protection on public networks
- Avoid throttling issues
- More privacy

Note, these are just a few of the reasons. Depending on where you live and various laws and regulations, some of these might apply more in your situation. It is important to remember that these issues for the most part have always been there running in the background.

Ad networks probably have very thorough profiles on your web traffic history up until now. Media streaming sites have more than likely throttled your internet without you noticing. And there is a high chance that you have never seen any online content from certain parts of the world.

And while you can continue to functionally use the web without making any changes, these issues and challenges will remain limiting your overall ability to use the internet to its full potential. And in the near future, more limitations could potentially arise, again, without your notice, leaving you in a smaller box in terms of attaining knowledge.

How does a VPN work?

Let's get into some quick tech jargon on how VPN's work before we discuss some of the standout features. First let's talk about the standard client-server architecture that currently powers the web.

The client, is you, or any computer, cellphone, tablet and/or connected device on a network. The server is a remote computer that stores the files for a website. When you make a request to say "bing.com", your request goes through your ISP and then to the server hosting that particular website. The server then responds with the HTML, CSS and JavaScript needed to render whatever page it is that you asked for.

In those 3 layers you can begin to see where the weak points are. And it is mainly in the gaps between you and your data. Once your data is off (your request), the process is out of your hands. If you are on a public network, then the challenge is heightened as other people on that network can potentially see your traffic activity.

Enter the VPN. VPN software is normally installed on your particular OS, such as Windows, Linux, Android, etc. I say normally because browsers like Firefox have begun to offer VPN services directly through the browser. While still in beta, it definitely continues the push of making online privacy a more general procedure.

Assuming your VPN is turned on and you make a web request, your data will be sent through one of the many different VPN servers around the world using their particular IP addresses, and not yours, in order to make the request on that particular server, essentially masking your location.

In this manner, the source destinations (websites) won't know where exactly the request came from, making it more difficult to build a digital tracking footprint.

Most VPN's offer the benefit of encrypting your data through the secure tunnel as well, preventing any type of spoofing or man-in-the-middle attacks that you can be prone to on public networks, or unsecure networks in general.

The takeaway. VPN's help give control back to the client in terms of what ISP's and remote servers get to see.

Features

Different VPN software offer different features based on various pricing structures. Some offer encryption, while others offer legal protections from various countries, while others focus on performance and speed.

Let's talk about a few of the more notable features, such as avoiding content restrictions. If you were to visit your favorite video streaming site from a country that you were currently visiting, let's say Japan for example, then you might be surprised to see an entirely new catalog of videos and movies that you have never encountered before.

This is done on purpose mind you, as more than likely content in different languages are less likely to be relevant to your particular watching habits. But the restriction is there, and there isn't anything that you can do about it.

Unless you have a VPN. In which case, you can use a remote server in the region that you wish to access content for , and voila, more content.

One feature that goes missed by most is the potential financial savings that you might get as a "first-time" visitor to a selling website. And while that might sound weird, let me break it down a bit further because it does have logical (and technical) sense and is relatively common practice.

Certain websites, those that sell products, usually tend to fluctuate their prices for various reasons. Some do it based on inventory, while others do it based on shopping habits and even the time of the year as well. If you have ever visited a particular product on a website multiple times for example, there is a good chance that you are close to closing the deal and making the purchase.

Even charging you $1 more at this stage is a giant boon considering that the larger online retailers deal with millions of transactions per day. And most people do not tend to buy on the first view. Other merchants, such as airlines and ticket vendors can increase their prices even more during these times and all without a visitors awareness.

While not guaranteed, it is possible that visiting the same product site from a different "new" IP address can result in a price drop. This is normally done to entice the smaller percentage that will probably purchase on first time view. If anything, it can at least help you to have a higher chance of getting lower prices overall.

I personally have seen this by just using a different browser even, so just knowing that you can potentially in the long term save money without having to do anything is a big plus in it of itself.

Privacy

And lastly, the most notable feature when it comes to using a VPN, is the increase in privacy in an ever more restricted digital world. Bandwidth is cheap, storage is cheap and servers are cheap. This means there are little to no restrictions to tracking every single user activity that every person makes online, not anymore anyway.

While I am not against companies keeping records on user activities, as it does help them to improve their products in the long term and to scale hardware accordingly, I do find the selling and reselling of this data to be potentially more harmful from a personal perspective. Mainly because it is unregulated and because the more data that circulates the higher the likelihood of this data getting misplaced or stolen. And we definitely have seen plenty of that throughout the years.

While a VPN can't stop all tracking, it can slow it down, and it can break any potential profile that ad networks use to target you. They might end up with data, but it could eventually just be random IP's from around the world with highly encrypted text that their algorithms won't make any sense of.

If you don't already have a VPN setup, there are many options online to choose from all with different features and price points. I am currently using SurfShark VPN for my day to day work and I highly recommend it for a few reasons.

- It's fast
- Only VPN service that allows for unlimited simulataneous connections
- No ads, trackers, malware and phishing attempts
- Allows for GPS spoofing if you are on your mobile device

And it runs on all of my devices currently, which is a huge plus for the price point.

But really use any VPN service that makes sense to you and your needs. Particularly in this day and age of dynamic regulations, censorship and security vulnerabilities that spring up seemingly out of nowhere. You can mitigate most of that with the price of a cup of coffee per month.

Hope you found this post helpful. As a freelance web developer who works with clients around the world and in remote locations consistently, having the right tools at hand at all times can make the difference in getting the job done.

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