Almost every news story at the moment seems to be about hackers from one country or another breaking into other country’s digital assets for espionage or propaganda purposes. Furthermore, if a government department’s security can be broken, then what chance does a small business or individual stand using just basic security protocols inherent on home computers, mobile devices and the like?
Just recently, President Joe Biden signed a cryptocurrency order that allowed government cyber experts to dig into people’s and companies’ crypto finances. It should be emphasized that this was an exploratory move to give the US government a better view of how Crypto works and how US citizens are tending to interact with it. But once a government department starts being authorized to look into people’s financial dealings, what else is going to get discovered along the way?
Certain despotic regimes across the world are known to use technology, not least the threat of long prison sentences or worse, to prevent what they call ‘dissident elements’ of society from accessing international news or social media. Those dissidents are usually just normal people seeking a degree of intellectual and social freedom. Many such folks are countering their governments’ oppressive activities by using such things as a virtual private network (VPN) or VPN Chrome extension to access news outlets like the BBC in the UK, for example.
But even citizens of the free world ought to be careful about taking online security for granted. It’s true to say that anonymity is probably the best form of defense from hackers and internet bad guys; after all, if you’re an unknown Joe Average citizen, you’re unlikely to be in a hacker’s target sights. But social media influencers and rich people who have a high profile in the media make obvious targets for ransomware, doxing and other privacy-related scams.
Many of these activities from hackers can be prevented by the use of a VPN, which anonymizes a person’s internet presence, even from their own internet service provider (ISP), by using an encrypted ‘middleman’ server to access the web. The server sits anywhere in the world between the user’s connected device and their ISP, with the user being able to choose the international location of that server. In short, if a hacker decides to go after a social media influencer who appears to be wealthy, and is known to live in New York City, the bad guy isn’t going to attempt to break into a server shown by its IP address as being located in Mexico.
There are many other advantages to using a VPN, such as avoidance of data throttling, freedom from the practice of dynamic pricing and being able to access geo-restricted content at will. Let’s take a quick look at these one at a time.
Many ISPs have ‘fair usage policies’ in the small print of their customer contracts. These policies are more often deployed when 4G or 5G data is being consumed, but sometimes applies to regular landline users who are not connected via fiber cabling, but through the original copper wire legacy connections of their landline telephone sockets.
The short explanation is that if you’re seen to be using a lot of data, your ISP will, usually surreptitiously, slow down your connection to selected servers. For example, imagine a household of two parents and two late-teenaged children. Mom is a work from home (WFH) video editing freelancer, Dad is a journalist for a local paper, one child is studying media and film studies at college and the other son is a stoner constantly playing video games 20 hours per day. That household is going to be consuming a lot of data. The ISP can identify the spike in usage from that particular account and ‘throttle’ the connection so that data transfer is so slow, it discourages the family’s activities. But using a VPN means that your ISP can’t identify who you are or where you’re located, so it can’t throttle your connection.
There’s a theory, hotly denied by the alleged perpetrators, that certain travel and ecommerce business websites look at a visitor’s IP address, match it against a database of socio-economic demographics and display a higher price to visitors from known wealthy areas. The theory is that if you’re looking to reserve a hotel room in, say, New York City, and your IP address indicates that you’re living in a Florida condo, you’ll see a higher price than if you’re located in a suburb of Detroit.
Whether or not the practice actually occurs is a matter for debate, but in any case, using a VPN and choosing a server located in Mexico or some other less wealthy country than the USA when looking for flights and hotel rooms can’t be a bad idea. With a VPN network, you can choose a server anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. Try it for yourself – you might be pleasantly surprised!
This is a simple one. If you’re on vacation in Europe, but you’ve been streaming a Netflix series back in the states, the content is likely to be blocked from viewing while you’re away. Again, with a VPN on your laptop, you only need to click a couple of times for Netflix to ‘think’ that you’re accessing your account from the US and you’re all set.
In summary, there are many good reasons to use a VPN aside from keeping up security standards. There are almost no downsides to using one and there’s no cost involved. Finding a reputable VPN provider and installing the software as a browser extension takes only moments, so there’s really no good reason not to do so.