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Is a VPN really worth it?

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In tech circles, there are a few decisions that are easy and a few that are hard. We know a smartphone is essentially a lifeline to the world, so forking over $1,000 or more for the latest model is not something we generally anguish over. 

When it comes to high-speed Internet, the tech elite will almost always choose the fastest option possible, we invest in high-end laptops and high-quality earbuds. That’s why, when it comes to a VPN (Virtual Private Network), it’s almost a no-brainer if you care about privacy, security, and anonymity.

The costs are not astronomical, even if you choose the commercial options and add all of the perks (as explained below). The overhead to using a VPN is not that significant (adding about 10-15% in extra data usage). And the truth is that a VPN provides a layer of encryption for all your Internet traffic that is worth the cost and trouble.

Adding up the costs 

You might not be totally convinced a VPN is worth it, and it’s smart to evaluate the pros and cons. From a purely unbiased perspective, a VPN ranks with an antivirus client in terms of how you are protected online from a data breach or unethical hacking.

To understand the actual costs, it’s a good idea to investigate the levels of service available. For example, a VPN client like Hotspot Shield does offer a free version for VPN use of up to 500MB per day. That will work fine for many online activities, such as browsing websites, but won't last over long. The costs only go up a small amount as you choose higher tier levels. For example, ExpressVPN (our favorite provider out there) tends to charge only a little over $5 per month for access at faster speeds for more devices and without limits.

Moving up to high-end clients for business purposes, choosing products from Cisco or Microsoft, the costs will be much higher, but there will also be more assurances about service level agreements, technical support, encryption level, and reliability.

The main point to make here - the decision is often not whether you should use a VPN (since there are so many free and low-cost options_ it’s how much you should pay. And this depends on what level of protection you need and what you are doing online.

Level of protection and service

Assuming you can justify the low cost of a VPN, the next decision is related to how much protection and security you need. Let’s make one thing clear here - a VPN is a smart choice for those who need extra security, privacy, and anonymity online because you don’t want to be a pawn for advertisers serving you ads, you don’t want to get hacked, and you like to protect your identity. It does not imply you are stealing software or streaming illegal movies. A VPN is a justifiable security measure for anyone who uses the Internet.

The decision is more about the level of protection. A free VPN will provide encryption for one device, and often for only one country where you will access web servers. And, the speed will be throttled so you likely won’t be able to download 4K movies in a matter of minutes.

It’s also worth noting that a VPN is not perfect. One of the important realizations to make is that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) still knows your identity and location no matter what since the VPN creates a tunnel from your existing, established connection.

Here’s an example of how that works. Let’s say you are connecting at home using a cable modem. When you connect to Wi-Fi or directly to the modem, your ISP gives you an IP address that is tied to your location and identity. That IP address can be tracked by the ISP. So the actual connection itself, the ability to even browse the web or download files, is traceable.

A VPN forms a secure connection over the existing Internet feed. An ISP can’t see which websites you are visiting or which movies you are downloading, but they can see the bandwidth level you are using, and they still know you are using an IP they provided to connect. A good analogy here is to driving a car. An ISP knows which car you are driving at what speed, but they don’t know where you are driving and can’t track your actual downloads.

Determining whether a VPN is worth it should at least involve some thought process about that fact - that the ISP still knows that you connected and handed you an IP address.

Identity and location

Another factor to consider is that there are other ways to determine your identity and location. Your actual Internet feed is encrypted and your location is obfuscated, but that’s only true if you never type in any location data or personal data. If you fill out a form online and type in a name, address, phone number, and credit card, you have revealed your identity.

A VPN protects your Internet travels, but you should also be aware of the fact that there are other ways to determine your location and identity online. For example, it’s possible to reveal your location based on GPS data; Wi-Fi signals can be used to triangulate your position as well. A VPN certainly provides robust encryption and protection, but it is only for the Internet -- not for other signals you might transmit unknowingly from a phone or laptop.

This does not rule a VPN out by any means. In fact, it should prompt you to consider one even more. It’s fortunate you can use a VPN to protect your online activity. The costs are low compared to other services we know are important and valuable. The level of protection and service, even for free clients, provide more privacy, good protection, and peace of mind.

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