First and foremost, using a VPN prevents anyone on the same network access point (or anywhere else) from intercepting your web traffic in a man-in-the-middle attack. This is especially handy for travelers and for those using public Wi-Fi networks, such as web surfers at hotels, airports, and coffee shops. Someone on the same network, or the person in control of the network you’re using, could conceivably intercept your information while you’re connected. Our 2019 survey noted that just 19 percent of respondents use a VPN while traveling, which is a dismal result from a security standpoint.
VPNs also cloak your computer’s actual IP address, hiding it behind the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. IP addresses are distributed based on location, so you can estimate someone’s location simply by looking at their IP address. And while IP addresses may change, it’s possible to track someone across the internet by watching where the same IP address appears. Using a VPN makes it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
Many VPN services also provide their own DNS resolution system. Think of DNS as a phone book that turns a text-based URL like “pcmag.com” into a numeric IP address that computers can understand. Savvy snoops can monitor DNS requests and track your movements online. Greedy attackers can also use DNS poisoning to direct you to bogus phishing pages designed to steal your data. When you use a VPN’s DNS system, it’s another layer of protection.
VPNs are necessary for improving individual privacy, but there are also people for whom a VPN is essential for personal and professional safety. Some journalists and political activists rely on VPN services to circumvent government censorship and safely communicate with the outside world. Check the local laws before using a VPN in China, Russia, Turkey, or any country with with repressive internet policies.
What about using a VPN for BitTorrent? Some services allow peer-to-peer file sharing and the use of BitTorrent sharing. Others restrict such activity to specific servers. Be smart: Learn the company’s terms of service—and the local laws on the subject. Only six percent of our respondents report ever having used a VPN with BitTorrent. While that’s a low number, it may simply reflect the fact that not all respondents have ever used BitTorrent at all.