Ten years ago, the only people who really care about virtual private networks (VPNs) were businessmen far from the home office who needed to access internal corporate servers. Now it’s a different story. From shoppers to gamers to jetsetters, pretty much everyone could benefit from using a VPN.

 

Don’t actually know what a VPN is? Here’s an explanation in a nutshell: A VPN is an internet service that encrypts and routes your traffic through another server, meaning the sites you visit don’t know you’re the one visiting them and your internet service provider can’t tell what sites you’re visiting either.

 

If you’re still not sure what practical implications that could have, read on below.

Maintain anonymity

By default, your internet service provider can see what you get up to online. The same is true of anyone else on your network who uses certain tracking software—a real danger on unprotected Wi-Fi networks in cafes and airports. People might be able to see passwords, social media accounts, or even information about your medical issues.

A VPN lets you deter unwanted snooping by routing your traffic for you.  All that will be visible is the traffic between your computer and the VPN,not the sites and services on the other end.

Get around content blocks

It’s no secret—Netflix has different libraries in different countries. Because a VPN can give you a server address in a different country, it can allow you to access that country’s Netflix library. Be warned: Netflix blocks some VPNs, so do your research first.

However, a good VPN can get you access to more than just Netflix. BBC iPlayer, Hulu, and HBO Now are all streaming sites subject to regional restrictions. Simply connect to a service where the streaming service is offered and then you’ll be watching media like a pro.

Be a savvy traveler

If you’ve spent much time in East Asia, you’ll know that one country in particular makes it hard to enjoy the internet (*cough cough* China *cough*). Common sites like Google, Facebook, and YouTube are all blocked.

If you’re in China or a similarly censored country, the best way to get back in touch with social media and the content you enjoy is through a VPN. All you have to do is connect to a server location in a country where a given website isn’t censored and you’re good to go.

These are just three ways that VPNs can help solve various online problems, and there are plenty more (cheap airline tickets, anyone?). The trick is finding a service that works for you and ensures your privacy. As they become more mainstream, they’ve sure to become THE digital security tool of the 21st century.

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