The pros and cons of using VPNs

The pros and cons of using VPNs

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t on the VPN bandwagon at first. I enjoy jumping into my work headfirst, and the idea of using VPNs — Virtual Private Networks that allow people to conduct their usual internet business from behind the safety of a private, secure network — seemed contrary to the way I try to work. I’m trying to go 100 miles per hour on an ongoing basis, and if a VPN would slow me down, I would kindly say no thank you.

I started coming around after working with an award-winning creative director at my company, who, in addition to being one of the more creative professionals I know, is also a security freak. And as I began educating myself about VPNs, I realized how valuable it would be to use one at least some of the time.

It seems like I’m not the only one who has come to this realization. As people become ever more concerned about their online privacy, it shouldn’t come as a shock that interest in VPNs has dramatically increased.

Admittedly, VPN use is still far higher in Asia and the Middle East than it is in the US, where an estimated five percent of internet users opt to use one. That said, those who do have VPNs tend to use them frequently — at least once a week — with many opting to use them every day. Those who do employ them do so for several reasons, such as maintaining anonymity while browsing websites and social media, not to mention securely accessing files and other services at work.  

In addition to enabling users to protect their private information from companies looking to gather their data, a VPN also gives companies an extra element of security. There’s plenty of intellectual property in an agency like mine, and I’d be negligent if I wasn’t concerned about attempts to get at our data.

Organizations use VPNs for protection when connecting to public wifi, to connect to global content when traveling, to secure connections to their offices for employees. I happen to recommend VPN usage to my colleagues and clients, as it makes them private/anonymous from ISPs tracking their online behavior, and in most cases blocks malware and phishing as well.

VPNs safeguard users from hackers, but also from the big players like Google and Facebook that are in the business of monetizing user data. The same thing is true about governments, which collect user data for their own purposes. VPN strive to give consumers control over their personal data; at a time when people are (justifiably) concerned about how their data is being exploited by corporations, it makes complete sense that VPNs are surging in popularity.

Selecting the right VPN

But, as the saying goes, not all VPNs are created equally. Consequently, choosing a VPN can be complicated, especially when you take a look at the number of VPNs that exist in the market.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help you make a decision. For instance, AV-TEST, an independent IT security research institute, recently tested 12 different VPNs in a bid to discover which ones provide the best security and performance for consumers. In that test, the Hotspot Shield Elite came first in both usability and security, while also providing useful features including protection from malware and phishing.

Other VPNs that performed well in the study include Private Internet Access, which was singled out for its exceptional leak protection, and NordVPN, whose multihop cascading abilities allow for increased anonymity.

Ultimately, what the results from the study show is that, while there are a lot of good VPN options out there, you need to choose one that best fits your needs. If your primary concern is to retain your anonymity, then a product like NordVPN might be better than Private Internet Access. It also depends on how much money you’re willing to spend — while some VPNs, like Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear, offer free versions of their products, many others require a continued subscription.

Finally, you have to think about the fact that, while your VPN might be preventing your ISP or other external actors from collecting information on you, there might not be anything that stops your VPN from collecting information on you. As a result, it’s just as important to do your research into the company that develops the VPN as it is to research the VPN itself.

So, the question remains: should you be using a VPN? If I was forced to give a one-word answer, I would say yes. Absolutely, yes. However, the answer is really a bit more complex than that. VPNs are becoming increasingly easy to use, and one should educate themselves about the pros associated with using one — as well as the risks of not employing a VPN.

Of course, like any product, there are tradeoffs: VPNs do create an additional connection between the user and the Internet, which can ultimately lead to a slower connection. That said, there certainly is a wealth of evidence that VPNs add a layer of security you can’t get anywhere else, and in most cases, the benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks.

This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.

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