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May 09, 2019 12:53 PM EDT

What you can and can't do with a VPN


Many misconceptions are out there concerning virtual private networks, or VPNs. When it's time to learn what a VPN is, understanding what one can and can't do with the VPN is an important part of the process.

What You Can Do

Access Geo-Locked Content

One of the best ways to use a VPN is to get around the region locks on content on streaming video services. These blocks are put in place due to licensing agreements with the content creators, but it can be frustrating to not have access to those videos. A common way to use the VPN is to access videos available in one's home country while they're traveling abroad.

Circumvent Tracking

Websites come with so many trackers for themselves and for third-party advertisers. These trackers slow down the performance of a website, gather information without being clear about what they're using it for, and create comprehensive user profiles that can identify a person based on data from multiple sources. A VPN stops these activities from happening and restores the person's privacy.

Protecting P2P Activity

Peer to peer traffic can draw legal complaints and actions by the Internet Service Provider, even if it's for content that can legally be downloaded over these services. To avoid this hassle, users can make it impossible for the ISP to see how they're using their Internet. The P2P traffic is hidden from view and supported through an encrypted connection.

Protect Browsing Activity on Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi is convenient, but it's also quite dangerous when it comes to the security and privacy of a computer. Opportunistic hackers can redirect Wi-Fi traffic to malicious sources and use tools to see exactly what the users are looking at as they browse the Internet. That type of information could include usernames and passwords, or other sensitive resources. A VPN stops the hackers from being able to access this information and keeps the browsing experience safe.

Make Online Payments While Abroad

Many bill payment and ecommerce sites have fraud detection tools in place that will flag a transaction if it's made from a country that doesn't match the address on file. While this is great for protecting people against fraudulent purchases, it's frustrating during overseas trips when someone needs to make a legitimate payment. A VPN can route traffic through the country of origin, rather than the country that the person is currently in, to circumvent some of these issues.

Getting Around Website Blocks

Website blocks are put in place by various groups and agencies. At the workplace, it's likely that certain websites are blocked by the IT department. A VPN doesn't allow the blocking technology to see what websites the user is accessing. Instead, all of the browsing activity is encrypted and the person would be able to get to the blocked websites and online services through the VPN. The person doesn't need to rely on their mobile data to look up websites that are inaccessible. They can do it on any device that they route through the VPN.

Block an IP Address

A person's IP address can be used to locate a person or find out sensitive information about them. A VPN masks this address so the user's identity is protected. Some VPN services support multiple server connections, which takes the website traffic and sends it through two servers in different locations to provide additional security.

What You Can't Do

VPN services can do a lot, but they do have some limitations. It's important to keep these in mind when selecting a VPN service, as the drawbacks could get in the way of the intended usage.

Can't Always Access Streaming Videos

VPNs that aren't built for speed may run into issues with online video streaming. The performance could have a lot of stuttering or buffering, leading to a poor experience. Some streaming video services, such as Netflix, may have technology in place that recognizes some VPNs and prevents them from accessing content. It's important to look at the speed and performance of the VPN, as well as whether it states that the streaming platform is supported, prior to ordering the service.

May Not Be Able to Use VPN for P2P Services

Not all VPN services support P2P traffic. The ones that do generally advertise this fact clearly, so double-check the list of features to confirm that this type of traffic is allowed in the terms of service.

Could Run Into Problems Circumventing ISP or Government VPN Blocks

Government agencies and Internet Service Providers may have technology in place that looks for characteristics of VPNs and prevents that traffic from accessing sites that are blocked in the country. For users who are worried about that happening, they can use a free trial of a VPN or look for one with a money-back-guarantee or generous refund policy so they can test it in their country. For example, China's government goes to a lot of trouble trying to find the latest VPNs so it can block them or force them to comply with the Internet censorship they have in place.

Can't Access Bank Websites

The security measures on bank websites and similar institutions prevent VPN traffic, as the organizations are worried about that being fraudulent traffic. Some VPNs allow users to access these types of websites by whitelisting them. They don't have to turn the VPN off and then back on to access these sites. Instead, they go through normal browsing channels while the rest of the internet traffic remains within the VPN's protection.

May Have Limited Platform Support and Data Limits

Some VPNs have data caps in place and limited support for devices and platforms. Data caps get in the way of online video streaming, and limited platform support means that a user would have to route traffic through unsecured channels for those pieces of hardware. Premium VPNs often offer broad support and high or unlimited data caps.

A VPN is an excellent tool to use for a safe, secure and private browsing experience.

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