If you want to help secure your digital identity, a virtual private network (VPN) is a great tool you can use for added online privacy. In this guide, we discuss VPNs in detail, including how they work, how they protect you and why you should use one when browsing the web.

A VPN is a service that hides your IP address and encrypts your data to ensure your online privacy. Think of it as a private tunnel that allows you to connect to the internet without being tracked or traced by your internet service provider (ISP), advertisers, cybercriminals and others.

Initially, the VPN was created for remote employees to send and receive corporate files through a secure internet connection. But now with the internet becoming a part of everyday life, even the average consumer is transmitting sensitive data online on a regular basis. Every time you shop, browse or bank online, you are sharing data that can expose your digital identity to more than your intended audience. Today, VPNs are a popular tool used to help stay protected from data theft, surveillance or commercial targeting.

How does a VPN work?

Using a VPN to protect your digital identity is simple:

  1. Sign up for a VPN service.
  2. Download the VPN and turn it “on” while you’re online.
  3. The VPN hides your IP address by substituting it with another.
  4. The VPN encrypts your data as it travels across the internet.

To get a better idea of how a VPN works, let’s briefly define two important terms: encryption and IP address.

What is Encryption?

In a nutshell, encryption is the process of turning information into code to prevent unauthorized access. With a VPN, any data (search queries, link clicks, payment information, etc.) that passes through the encryption tunnel gets replaced with a cipher, or “secret code,” that can only be deciphered by the intended user or destination.

What is an IP Address?

An IP address is a unique string of numbers that identifies a device on the internet or local network. It plays a similar role to that of a phone number or street address in transferring information from one place to another or identifying an owner. Every computer connected to the internet has an IP address, and it is through this naming system that computers can communicate with one another.

Why Use a VPN?

No one likes the idea of being watched. If you truly want to enjoy the convenience of getting things done online while maintaining your privacy, you may have to hide your digital location and encrypt your sensitive data. Here are some reasons why you may want a VPN:

Protects Your Data on Public Networks

Free Wi-Fi sounds great right? While the explosion of public Wi-Fi has been a boon for students and working professionals, it’s costlier than you think. The biggest threat to Wi-Fi security is the same reason we love it so much: anyone can access it. In most cases, data traffic is not encrypted, leaving room for anyone who knows a few hacking tricks (which are readily available online) to capture your information. A VPN makes it safer to shop, bank, and handle other sensitive data when you’re online.

Hides Your IP Address

Every time you connect with anything on the internet, your IP address automatically gets captured. This means that what you do online can be traced back to your country, city and devices. With a VPN, however, your IP address gets replaced with that of your VPN provider’s. The end result: your location remains a mystery.

Stream from Anywhere

You may or may not know this, but streaming platforms license content differently depending on the country you’re in. Say you travel to Europe while you’re in the middle of your favorite show. You bring your smart devices with you to binge on your spare time, but then realize you can’t access the same content. With a VPN, you won’t have to worry about regional restrictions to streaming because you can choose to appear anywhere in the world your VPN provider has a server. So, if you can’t access U.S. Netflix in Europe, you can simply connect to a VPN server located in the United States. The same works in reverse. If you want to access shows that are only available in the United Kingdom or France, for instance, you can do so by connecting to the internet from a server in those locations.

Avoid Censorship

Not everyone lives in a country that protects freedom of speech and access to information. In many countries, access to various websites can be blocked due to censorship and geo-blocking. In some countries, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms are either blocked or strictly censored. With a VPN, however, your digital activity is untraceable, allowing you to bypass censorship and access the open internet.

Evade Browser Tracking

When you’re online, everything you do turns into data: the websites you visit, the links you click, the posts you like on social media and more. While this type of tracking doesn’t necessarily threaten your online security, it can expose your digital activity to ISPs and websites that sell your data to advertisers for targeted marketing. With a VPN, you turn virtually invisible.

Find the Best Prices Online

Did you know you may be paying higher prices for goods and services depending on the area you live? It’s called price discrimination. Essentially, this is when people are charged based on their perceived ability to pay. So, if you live in areas with a higher average income, like Boston, New York or Los Angeles, you can be charged higher prices on things like airline tickets, hotels and rentals. With your IP address hidden though, you can check for prices as if you were inquiring from a different city or country.