How to Stay Safe with a VPN

Callum Tennent
By Callum TennentUpdated

Everyone that uses the internet can benefit from a VPN. The increased security means that you can browse privately and anonymously, even if you’re connected to public Wi-Fi. You can also use a VPN to hide all of your messaging and internet banking use, giving you total protection against unauthorised hacks. Find out about the 7 key benefits of a VPN now.

An illustration of how a VPN keeps you safe

The internet offers convenience, but it also exposes us to risks. Hacking, identity theft, and fraud can have serious consequences. If you’ve ever experienced a breach of safety online, you’ll know how unnerving it can be. Fortunately, a VPN mitigates most of the risk and helps to keep you safe and secure.

Here are 7 reasons why a VPN should be an essential component of your internet security toolkit.

Stop your connection being hacked

It’s surprisingly easy for a malicious user to see what you’re doing online.

Hacking tools can be mastered in a few minutes, revealing every site that all users are visiting.

These rogue applications are commonly used on public Wi-Fi when there’s no password to encrypt the connection.

Public Wi-Fi is an easy target for hackers who can easily see your data

If you connect to the same network, you’re at risk of having your activity exposed and monitored.

If you stick to using HTTPS websites, this is less of an issue. But most of us use a mixture of secure and non-secure sites. For example, you might submit an enquiry form that includes your phone number. With that, and your name, someone could impersonate you online.

A VPN protects against any possibility that your browsing activity could be exposed.

Protect your financial data

Bank websites are almost always secure, but on an unsecure network, complacency could cause problems. It’s very easy for hackers to generate a fake log-in form.

They can redirect you to a fake version of a website using DNS spoofing. The other method is to use a man-in-the-middle attack, which allows the hacker to change the content of pages by secretly intercepting your activity and relaying their own fake content

It’s not just online banking that’s risky. Entering your credit card details into a form could be problematic if you aren’t vigilant, as are finance applications, when you hand over a range of personal details.

Each time you enter credit card data online you run the risk of interception.

If the worst happened, you probably wouldn’t know anything was wrong until you found that your card has been blocked.

Get into the habit of using a VPN for all sensitive transactions, including purchases, credit card and loan applications, and checking your bank account. This is the only way to be completely safe – particularly if you’re using a network that you don’t trust.

Prevent malware infection

From time to time, your computer will alert you to a system update or software patch. If you’re on a secure network, it’s a good idea to download and install updates as soon as they pop up on-screen.

But if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network, a hacker can force a fake update to appear on our computer. Once you install it, it can infect your computer and others.

Malware can cause a whole range of problems and can be very difficult to remove from an infected device

Malware is a problem because it can send sensitive data back to hackers to exploit. For example, it could capture your credit card number as you type it. Malware infections are also a problem for businesses, because they can spread quickly over corporate networks and infect thousands of devices at once.

Even worse, really persistent malware is very common. It can be almost impossible to remove from your system, and it can cause problems with the normal functioning of your device. Malware is also a common issue on smartphones and tablets, wiping data and disclosing personal details.

It’s certainly possible to manage the risk with anti-virus and anti-spyware detection. But it’s far easier to use a VPN to reduce the risk of malware infection in the first place.

Protect against snooping

Many governments now actively monitor and log internet usage. China and Russia are perhaps the most well known culprits, but the UK, US, and Australia are moving in the same direction. Some countries are very committed to privacy, and the EU is still resistant to government snooping. But overall, the internet is becoming a less private place.

While there are arguably legitimate reasons to track certain individuals, we are instead talking about mass surveillance of law-abiding citizens, which is harder to be comfortable with.

Mass surveillance of citizens is no longer limited to despotic regimes: the USA, UK and Australia are following in the footsteps of China and Russia.

Even if you have nothing to hide, there is a chance that your data could fall into the wrong hands. A change in government, or a simple hack, is all that’s required to expose all of your private browsing activity to the world.

A VPN gets around this. It shields your activity from public view, so your ISP cannot collect data about your browsing activity. For example, it would be impossible for anyone to see the websites you visit and match that with your location. Even if you aren’t living under an obviously authoritarian regime, this is a worthwhile safeguard.

Resist censorship

In some countries, the internet is not just logged. It is controlled and blocked. Websites can be ‘switched off’ almost in real time, and users that post content that governments feel is objectionable are arrested and thrown in jail.

It’s not unusual for activists and bloggers in these countries to get into trouble for accessing or posting material online.

A growing number of countries are controlling the internet and using it to prevent political opposition

Even posting on Facebook can be a risky endeavor. In some countries, social media isn’t permitted at all.

If you’re a tourist visiting a country like Egypt, China, Turkey, Bahrain, or Cuba, it’s sensible to use a VPN to bypass internet blocks to ensure you can use all of the services you would use at home.

Oppressive regimes often try to block VPNs but that doesn’t mean they won’t work. Choose a VPN that uses proprietary protocols or additional obfuscation techniques that are more difficult to detect.

Read our travelers’ guides to China, Turkey and Egypt if you are spending any time in those countries for a ton of helpful tips.

Guard against stalking

When a hacker sets out to get information about you, they will use a range of tactics. If they intercept your browsing session, they can find out your social media URLs. That can lead them to your location, photo, and contact details.

And if they trick you into joining an ‘evil twin’ network, they can potentially access data on your device, like the list of Wi-Fi networks you use.

A hacker can find a terrifying amount of information about you – including your photo and current location – putting you in physical danger.

Armed with this information, the hacker can find out what you look like. So they can identify you sitting in the same room, without you knowing. If they’ve tricked you into connecting to a fake network, they might know the name of your hotel Wi-Fi, and they may see tourism apps on your smartphone. They probably also figured out your name and where you live.

Being in a strange city can be risky for any traveler – particularly someone that carries an expensive laptop in their bag. Even using public Wi-Fi is a risk; you don’t want to give out clues about your day-to-day life to a random hacker sitting in the same room.

To prevent the risk of being targeted, it’s wise to use a VPN to ensure that nobody can find out who you are, where you’re going, and what you might be doing for the rest of the day.

Make messaging more secure

Most messaging apps now have some kind of encryption, but it’s unwise to take this for granted. WhatsApp, for example, has end-to-end encryption, but security flaws have been found in its code in the past.

Unless you are using an open source app, it’s impossible to know whether its encryption is actually 100% effective.

Additionally, many big apps like WhatsApp aren’t open source, which means that the code can’t be inspected to see if it’s trustworthy.

It is possible to set up PGP to email securely. But this is much more complex than simply firing up an app on your phone. Most people don’t really think about message security until they realize someone’s been snooping on their chats.

Using a VPN with your messaging app adds an extra layer of security to every conversation. Even if there was a backdoor in the system, or a problem with the app’s code, your activity still couldn’t be intercepted by anyone. This is particularly important if you use messaging apps to transmit sensitive data. But it’s sensible to ensure that your photos, videos, and personal details don’t fall into the wrong hands.