Will a VPN Boost Your Online Privacy?

Category: Privacy

A confused AskBob reader says, “Do I really need a VPN to be safe online? A friend advised me to subscribe to a free VPN service to protect my privacy, but I don’t really understand why. What is a VPN, anyway?” Read on to learn about virtual private networks, what they can (and cannot) do, and find out if you need one...

What is a VPN?

Back in the 1980s when I worked at IBM, there was an "all hands" meeting at the Poughkeepsie NY site, where the mainframe computers were manufactured. One of the IBM vice presidents was talking about the future direction of the company and said: "I just found out what a paradigm is, and now I need a new one!" I hope today, you'll learn what a VPN is, and find out if you need one.

“VPN” stands for “Virtual Private Network.” A private network is one in which only authorized parties can participate. To grossly oversimplify, a Virtual Private Network is a private network set up on the public Internet, using encryption to ensure that no uninvited parties can eavesdrop on those who are authorized to participate in the VPN.

VPNs are especially popular among multi-location businesses. A VPN allows all the locations of such a business to communicate with each other via the public Internet privately and securely, without all the expense of dedicated hard wires running between all locations. Also, mobile workers can connect to a VPN from any Internet access point and exchange confidential data with other guests on the VPN. Some popular VPN providers are NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Proton VPN, and SurfShark.

VPN Services - pros and cons

Let’s look at how you would use a VPN service to communicate with a website. As a subscriber to a VPN service, your computer has VPN client software installed on it which enables it to connect securely and invisibly with the service provider’s VPN server. When you type your desired website's address into your browser, that data is encrypted and sent to the service provider’s VPN server. The VPN server then initiates a connection to the target site and securely relays data between you and the site.

This sounds like the “secure connection” indicated by the “https:” protocol that every Web browser can provide, doesn’t it? And it is, as far as the “secure connection” part goes. But a VPN (sometimes referred to as a proxy) also conceals the IP address of the person using it. When you access a website using a VPN, it appears to that site as if you came from the IP address of the VPN server, and not your own. The use of a VPN also hides all the URLs (website addresses) you access from your service provider. And all that obfuscation is quite often the desired effect.

Why, you might wonder? I suppose some folks who are ultra privacy conscious may want to cover their tracks in this manner. But scammers in Nigeria can also use this technique to make it look like they are located in the USA, and avoid tripping fraud alarms.

Accessing Blocked Content

A VPN or proxy service can also be used to get around blocks imposed by content providers or their own government. Netflix and Hulu Plus, for example, do not allow connections from outside the USA. So users in other countries have used VPNs located in the USA to gain access. Users in China are forbidden from accessing many "Western" websites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. By using a VPN server, they can (sometimes) get around those blocks.

Here’s an example of another potential problem with using a VPN service. Some VPN servers are located in many countries, including China. Let's say you want to login to your online banking this way. When the VPN server tries to complete your connection to your bank, it may appear to your bank that someone in China (or Iceland, or France, or…) is trying to impersonate you. Fraud alarms will ring and your connection will be denied. Your account may even be temporarily frozen for your protection.

Another potential problem is that all data exchanged through a VPN server is potentially stored on that server. If that server is compromised, so are you. Also, users of free VPN services often complain that slow or lost connections are commonplace.

Before you consider using a VPN, I recommend that you read this article from RestorePrivacy, which discusses privacy concerns related to global surveillance conducted by the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes surveillance alliances. The article alleges that the governments represented by these alliances work together to collect and share data, and further cautions against using "secure email services", VPNs and "private search engines" based in these countries. The links I gave above came from their list of recommended services: NordVPN (Panama), SurfShark (Netherlands), ProtonVPN (Switzerland), ExpressVPN (British Virgin Islands)

My Bottom Line on VPN Services

A VPN can be useful when you are using public wifi. If your laptop or smartphone is connected to a public wifi access point that does not require a password, then all non-encrypted traffic from and to your device can be easily captured or viewed by that guy in the green shirt, sitting across from you in the cafe, library or airport. If the website you are accessing starts with "http" and not "https" then your connection is not encrypted. All the green shirt guy needs is some free software that enables him to "sniff" the wifi signals being transmitted, and he can see that you're shopping for lingerie at Neiman Marcus, or whatever.

However, if you are accessing a secure site (the address starts with "https") then your connection is already encrypted, so a VPN would add no additional protection. And in most cases, any site that requires a password (your webmail, bank, social media, etc.) is already using a secure https connection to protect your privacy.

If you access non-secure sites via public wifi, a VPN may be a good idea. If you want to hide your web browsing activity from your internet service provider, use a VPN. If you're traveling abroad, and you absolutely must watch your favorite shows on Netflix or Hulu, then you might want to subscribe to a VPN service. If you're a Nigerian scammer who wants to order stuff on US-based websites using stolen credit cards, you definitely want to use a VPN. Otherwise, it's probably unnecessary and a waste of money.

If you do need a VPN, you may not have to spend money on a subscription. If you have a computer at home, and you travel with a mobile device, you can install a free VPN server such as UltraVNC, to allow you to access your home computer securely. TOR is another option that I discussed in Here's How to Boost Your Internet Privacy.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question about VPNs below...

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Most recent comments on "Will a VPN Boost Your Online Privacy?"

Posted by:

Ryan James
04 Nov 2022

I lived in Hungary for 19 years. When I got turned on to a VPN, it saved me from getting all websites in Hungarian, which I did not know. I was a university professor in an American Studies program.

Now, I live in Ecuador, so it helps with the Spanish translations. I know intermediate Spanish, but this is a time saver.

Posted by:

James Tracy
04 Nov 2022

Bob, Love your advice,s you give, but on this I disagree. About 5 years ago (before I had a VPN) A guy in California attempted to by an RV using my name, address and SS#. My Bank caught it and called me. They did an investigation and finally told me that the crook had probably gotten my info from my communications with my bank prior to my problem. I then got a VPN (paid subscription) and no more problems. I never leave the U.S. so no overseas Call-in. Sorry buddy, but I never go online without my VPN turned on.

Posted by:

05 Nov 2022

There are a few good VPNs offering access at $3 a month. Nord is one. Surfshark is mine. BUT- MANY sites are blocking visit when they detect you're using a VPN. Streaming channels (Starz) ((Hulu)) are an example. Why? Probably because it invalidates their tracking cookies. The day PayBuddy and my bank block my VPN I'll be refinancing. My bank notified me online I needed further authentication and encryption. My reply to them- "I mix/use an onscreen and regular keyboard. And a VPN. Communication to you is encrypted and NOONE else uses my computers plus passwords are in a password safe with a 24 character access password." And if you think Tor browser is safe? Who built it? The NSA. Ever hear of BACK DOORS? There are other secure browsers.

Posted by:

05 Nov 2022

I use Switzerland-based Privado's free version, which does as much as I want (for now) by enabling access to certain content restricted to users whose requests appear to come from within the same country. Of course, "Switzerland-based" doesn't prove that it has no connections with any nefarious state or non-state entities.

By the way, an uncle of mine also worked for IBM at Poughkeepsie in the 1980s.

(Apologies if this appears more than once - the Windows 10 up(?)grade broke lots of settings, including touchpad sensitivity, so now it's often difficult to tell whether I've tapped on something or not.)

Posted by:

05 Nov 2022

Bob - I am sorry but I have found it impossible to use online banking using desktop - my bank totally refuses to connect me if any VPN is connected. Also, as mentioned in your article, Yahoo makes life impossible.

You will observe that I am in S/E Asia and my country has very sophisticated computer monitoring systems which even control my Android now - whereas, recently, I could connect with ANY server naughty or otherwise. But now every website that might give puritans apoplexy is met with "YOUR IP IS UNABLE TO CONNECT YOU... IS NOT AVAILABLE IN YOUR AREA...or YOUR GOVERNMENT.." etc.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
05 Nov 2022

I considered trying out a VPN service a while back, but then I did some research and found that the only thing it really adds for me is the obfuscation of my IP address because I never leave the U.S.A (or even my hometown for that matter), and there is a noticeable performance hit (all browser requests/commands are sent to the VPN server, then relayed to the destination website and replies follow the reverse path). My web browser warns me if I try to connect to a website without a secure connection (https support), so when that happens, my browser pops-up an alert that gives me the choice to stop or continue. I choose the 'get out'ta dodge' option every time. If websites want me to visit, they'll have to support secure connections. I don't use a VPN for the same reasons I don't worry about cookies or block adds. I'm simply not interesting enough to warrant someone tracking me. I don't have enough money to be worth the bother, and I have all of my credit-bureau accounts frozen so no one can open a credit card or initiate a loan in my name. This is not an issue for me because I don't open new credit cards or initiate loans very often, and when the need arises, I can ask which credit bureau will be checked so I can unfreeze that account temporarily for the check.

My situation may be unique, but I don't think so. If you're situation doesn't require your credit bureau information to be frequently available, you may be better served to keep your accounts frozen. Unless you travel outside your home country, it restricts your communication rights, you want/need access to some service that is not available to you where you live/work, or you require a secure connection to your workplace, you probably don't need a VPN either. Just make sure your web browser defaults to secure connections, and alerts you about insecure connections (AFAIK, Chrome, Edge, and Firefox all do so).



Posted by:

Barbara L Leonard
06 Nov 2022

Where does duckduckgo fall in the security environment?

Posted by:

07 Nov 2022

I have used Nord VPN for about 5 years. They offer specials with very good pricing. There are two protocols available, TCP and UDP, having tried both, I use UDP which is faster, in fact I really don't notice any difference using NORD or not.
increasingly, many web sites refuse to load or just display an error message. Many sites use what I will call a distributed web system whereby their site is cached in several places around the world, using a special service. I believe cloudflare is one and there are many others. These services are the worst for blocking VPNs. I hope Bob will do a feature on this service someday so that old timers like me could understand it better.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
07 Nov 2022

Barbara L Leonard,

DuckDuckGo is an Internet search engine. Here is what they say about themselves:

We don't store your personal info. We don't follow you around with ads. We don't track you. Ever.

For more information about DuckDuckGo, you can go to their website at https://duckduckgo.com/ then scroll down on their landing page to view their Frequently Asked Questions section.

You can choose which search engine is used by your web browser in its configuration.

I use Microsoft's Edge browser in Windows 11 version 2022, and Firefox in Linux Mint Debian Edition 5 (Elsie). These are the default web browsers for these OSs, and I use their default search engines because I'm not very concerned about advertising or being tracked for advertising purposes.

The fact is that no matter what you do, if you use the Internet, your activity is tracked, one way or another. If the advertising industry can't get your information from your search engine, they will aggregate it from the websites you visit. The only thing you accomplish by using a search engine like DuckDuckGo is making it a bit more difficult for them to track your activity. The fact of the matter is that most of us are simply not interesting enough to warrant individual tracking beyond advertising. These companies aggregate our activity so they can show us adds that they think will be more targeted toward our interests. As an example, when I was doing research on the components for a desktop computer, I started to see a lot of advertisements for computers as well as computer parts.

If you use Windows, Microsoft collect data about you. If you use Google as your Internet search engine, Google collects data about you. If you use any social media platform (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), that platform collects data about you. In fact, your ISP collects data about you. They collect your activity information for their own purposes, but I'm certain that they sell it, based on their privacy policies, when they can.

If you have a computer that is connected to the Internet, your activity is being tracked - period. DuckDuckGo is a good search engine, and there is no harm in trying it out. Make sure to note which one you are using now so you can revert back to it if you don't like the search results you get with DuckDuckGo.

I hope this helps,


Posted by:

07 Nov 2022

@ Ernest

Your first post was very to the point and endorses that, no matter what steps one takes, a part of your history remains no matter what. I am also "not interesting enough" but do not let that give you a sense of security because, like you, I am a nobody but was one of the very first Ransom victims known!

As for DuckDuckGo - I found it to be of less value as a search engine and probably more difficult to use

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
11 Nov 2022


I do much more than ensuring a secure connection to protect my computers. I use Windows 11 with Ransomware protection enabled. It was a bit of a bother after I enabled it, because I had to 'allow' any programs I use to write/access my computer's storage devices, but this usually happens only once for each program. In addition, I'm very careful about which programs I install on my computers, and I review what's installed each month. If I find anything I don't use/need, I remove it (why keep such stuff around?). I keep everything as up to date as possible. I use Windows Update for anything from Microsoft and Patch my PC for all the installed programs I use. The most important thing I do anytime I'm on the Internet is to be very skeptical of everything I see. I always verify that any hyperlink I want to click will take me where it purports to go. As an example, if I see a hyperlink that purports to go to BestBuy (the text on its label), I hover my mouse over it to see what the URL really is. If it doesn't start with 'https://bestbuy.com/' I don't click. For any hyperlink, if the URLL I see by hovering my mouse over it doesn't match up with the text on its label, I don't click it. I treat hyperlinks on websites and email messages the same because they all come from the Internet, and I never automatically trust anything that comes from there. I consider everything I see on the Internet as if it is produced by strangers (people I don't know) because most of it is. When I was little, my mother taught me to not trust strangers (stranger danger). That was good advice that kept me safer as a child, and it keeps me safer now as an adult when I'm on the Internet (I still don't trust strangers). I have learned to trust Bob (and a few others on the Internet) over the years because he has always displayed his good intentions and honesty in everything he writes.

When it comes to search engines, I tend to stick with the default for the browser I'm using, but that doesn't mean that other engines aren't as good. It has simply been my experience over the years that the default search engine for whichever browser I'm using seems to work best with it. Maybe the browser's developers have 'tuned' it to work best with that engine, who knows. All I know is what seems to work best for me.



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