What is a VPN and why do I need one?

  1. Encryption and Privacy
  2. Unlocking Geo-locked Content & Websites
  3. Torrenting
  4. Location-based Shopping Discounts

With an increasing reputation as a ‘tech guy’ in my circles of non-techy friends, VPNs are a frequently recurring topic.

There’s a lot of guides to VPNs – but often the amount information presented can be overwhelmingly hard to digest.

My blog post this week aims to be straightforward, informative and cover the essentials while being easy on the eyes.

(If you’re looking for info on how to choose the right paid VPN service for you, click here.)

What is a VPN anyway? Why do I need it?

VPN stands for ‘Virtual Private Network’.

Protecting yourself online may feel like a chore (which it doesn’t have to be!) and may not appear immediately necessary to the average consumer.

Sex education has taught you that it’s always safer to use protection: the same applies to doing anything on the internet.

Let’s jump into the four main reasons why people use a VPN:

1. Encryption and Privacy

By far the main reason to use a VPN service. Protecting your personal data and privacy is very important: with the amount of people now working from home, this applies tenfold.

This is the bread and butter. Simply put, a VPN will 1) Encrypt network traffic for your device and/or network and 2) Enable you to effectively ‘hide’ your activities from your ISP (Internet Service Provider).

This also reduces the chances that personally identifiable information can be intercepted during online banking or sending sensitive emails: everything is encrypted following whichever standard the VPN service follows.

2. Unlocking Geo-locked Content & Websites

Everyone’s familiar with Youtube, and have encountered a “the uploader has not made this video available in your country” error.

We’ve all experienced this. :/

Assuming you’ve done schooling during the digital age (90s or later), you’ve also had certain websites blocked on your school/home network (and used a proxy website to access it anyway).

Streaming services such as Netflix have geo-locked libraries, and a VPN will help you access them (albeit with longer loading times or lower video quality). Some streaming content may be only available for streaming within a limited time frame, and this allows you to work around that.

NOTE: NordVPN (first and only ever paid VPN I’ve used to date, coming on 2 years now) no longer geo-unlocks for Netflix as of the last few months (specifically: Australia to US Netflix. Providers like Netflix will constantly update and improve their ability to detect and block ‘suspicious’ VPN activity by identifying DNS location mismatches and blocking those connections. (The current workaround? Use ExpressVPN instead.)

3. Torrenting

Ah yes, we’ve all seen those ridiculously over-bearing anti-piracy warnings at the beginning of a film (most ironic being when it plays on a pirated DVD/Bluray).

Nothing’s changed: people would most certainly download a car if they could, and like government surveillance, piracy shows no signs of going away.

Using a torrent client is not illegal. However, the downloading of copyrighted content (music, films, books and so on) most certainly is.

While the chance of actually being held legally accountable for torrenting copyrighted content is slim, the benefits of using a VPN will far outweigh the cost. Your ISP can monitor your torrenting activity, and copyright watchdogs could also pick up your scent.

Note: Not all VPN services will allow you to torrent, and for the ones that do – some are better than others. NordVPN has worked fine for me. ExpressVPN is as good (if not better).

4. Location-based Shopping Discounts

A lesser known use of a VPN is to obtain geographical discounts.

The most prevalent such purchases are flight tickets.

Many airlines and flight sales sites use dynamic pricing: by taking into account your location, customer accounts, and any previous flight data (from browser cookies), they deliver individualised pricing for flights.

The graph below from this article effectively visualises the cost-saving potential:

(Apologies for the sub-par resolution, but this is still a great visual overview)

The ability to save $50-$70USD per flight is nothing to scoff at, especially if you’re traveling as a family or group: especially during the pandemic (I mean, if you have to travel). Every dollar counts – don’t pay more than you need to.

Click here and here for guides on how to use a VPN to save money on flights.

Feel free to comment with any questions or concerns you have.

A guide on choosing the right VPN service for your needs will be published next week.


Published by Tech Neck Nick

I'm a cybersecurity major postgrad student from Sydney, Australia. Support my fight against Writer's Block.

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