Why you need a VPN—and how to choose the right one

Everybody's snooping on your internet traffic. Here's how to stay hidden.

  • By David Pierce,
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • Online Security
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On the internet, you never know who's watching. So maybe you should assume it is everyone: hackers, Google, your internet provider, the person next to you at Starbucks . The eyes are everywhere.

Your best defense? Camouflage. By using a virtual private network, or VPN, you can keep your activity and data far more secure. Once used mostly for remote workers to access their office networks, VPNs have become a tool more and more people use—or should use. A VPN can protect you from snooping hackers on public Wi-Fi networks in places like airports or coffee shops, and even keep your service providers from accessing and selling your web-browsing and app-usage data.

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You don't need it on all the time unless you're Jason Bourne or if everything you do is classified. If you're careful to use secure websites and apps, you don't have to turn it on during those times, either. And since Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services often block VPNs, you'll likely leave yours off by default.

But privacy matters more when communications involve sensitive health, family or financial matters. In those cases, it is better to be overly cautious and turn on the VPN—just clicking and disappearing from view.

A secure line

Imagine you're in a coffee shop, connecting to its open Wi-Fi network to get some work done while you sip a dirty chai. As you browse, everything you do is being sent through the cafe's router, which anyone in that coffee shop could be watching. It is shockingly easy for a hacker to tap into a public network and intercept the bits flowing through it. They can even inject malware onto your device by intercepting your internet traffic before it gets back to your machine.

If, however, you turn on a VPN before you start browsing, your activity will be far better protected. A VPN creates a "tunnel" between your computer and the service you're connecting to, using its software to make your connection direct and private. Once this tunnel is established, a VPN encrypts all of the data it sends to you and receives from you through the tunnel. Even if the coffee-shop hackers decided to snoop on your data, they wouldn't see anything they'd understand.

Because your VPN provider is actually accessing the internet for you, the sites you visit won't receive accurate identifying data like your location or IP address. No matter where you are, the internet will see your traffic as coming and going from whatever VPN you're using. When I turn on my VPN in San Jose, Calif., my IP address jumps to Newark, N.J. Good luck finding me.

This kind of location shifting has been key to the rise of VPNs. David Gorodyansky, chief executive at popular VPN maker AnchorFree, says the company's Hotspot Shield VPN often sees huge spikes in use during uprisings in countries like Turkey and Egypt, since the tool allows users to access sites that are blocked in the country. But even in everyday use, it can be a way to foil marketers and sometimes gain benefits like cheaper plane tickets, since airlines and other vendors can use your location and profile to set prices.

Using a VPN doesn't mean you can eschew all other good security practices, of course. You should still set strong passwords and change them often, use multifactor authentication, access secure HTTPS websites, and everything else you'd normally do to keep yourself safe online. If you visit a shady website and give it your credit-card info, your VPN can't stop you.

You should be rigorous in choosing a VPN, too, because even though other sites can't find out where you are or what you're up to, your VPN provider can. No matter which one you choose, you're placing your faith in the company's ability to keep your activity private. Some VPN makers promise to store only essential data, but that word is often used loosely. Others sell your data, trying to make advertising dollars. You want a VPN that stores as little of your information as possible—ideally none at all.

Choosing your camo

VPN options abound, all promising more or less the same thing. And if all you care about is avoiding the airport or coffee-shop snoop, most will serve you. But a few simple rules will help you narrow the field considerably.

You want a VPN that works on all of your devices, including your phone. And avoid ad-supported VPNs. They might operate like Facebook 's (FB) Onavo Protect app, which was recently removed from Apple 's App Store because it was collecting users' smartphone activity.

"Pretty much all VPNs claim they store no data," says David Walkiewicz, director of test research at AV-Test, an independent IT-security research firm based in Germany. But to some degree, he adds, "all companies store data."

Indeed, sometimes companies collect a little bit of data but don't associate it with you. Other times they're collecting tons of data and selling it to advertisers—or selling ads against it. As a rule of thumb, if you can think of an obvious reason why a company would use your data, it probably is.

Mr. Walkiewicz recently led a comparative study of popular VPN products and picked a handful of best options. Hotspot Shield Elite from AnchorFree, which costs between $3.50 and $13 a month, scored well across the board. (AnchorFree commissioned the study, though Mr. Walkiewicz says that didn't change the results.) The AV-Test team also praised Private Internet Access, a particularly anonymity-focused product from London Trust Media that costs between $3 and $7 a month; NordVPN, a feature-rich option for $7 to $12 a month; and Freedome VPN, a simple and secure option from F-Secure FSC1V that costs about $4 to $7 a month.

These products are increasingly part of broader security suites, which can also help store passwords and block malicious websites. Dashlane, which began as a password manager, now includes a VPN powered by AnchorFree. Similar McAfee-powered tech is built into recent Samsung smartphones as well, offering a small amount of free usage before charging $1 a day or $2 a month. Router maker Eero includes a VPN from Encrypt.me as part of its $99 annual Eero Plus plan, which makes using a VPN at home even simpler since it happens in your router. The best VPN is the one you'll actually remember to use.

Think of a VPN like the curtains in your house. Mostly they're open, the light streaming in, but when you need them closed you're glad they're there. As we spend ever more of our life and work online, we need a way to close the curtains anytime. With a good VPN, all that takes is a tap.

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