Privacy has always been a big concern for internet users. It isn’t just criminals and cheating partners who worry about their online behavior being tracked – pretty much everyone has very legitimate reasons for wanting to keep things under wraps.

Think about it – we use the internet for so much highly sensitive activity, from checking our bank balance to sharing photos of our kids. There’s a LOT of data that we really, really don’t want in the wrong hands.

And there are a lot of ‘wrong hands’ out there trying their darndest to get hold of it.

Most of us access the internet primarily through our Internet Service Provider, or ISP. And while they care about getting us online, they aren’t really too invested in our privacy when we get there.

In fact, many ISPs will actively monitor your online activity. Scary stuff.

So what’s the solution? For increasing numbers of people, it’s a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. These are private servers that allow you to connect to the internet without fear of being scrutinized by prying eyes.

They also allow you to fake a location, which grants access to content which would otherwise only be available overseas.

So how do they work?

The VPN server allows you to connect to the internet via an encrypted connection. That’s important for a number of reasons, not least because it blocks your activity from the ISP.

In fact, it looks to any outsiders like you’re accessing the internet through an entirely different ISP, often based in another country. That’s why it’s possible to access country-specific content.

The fact that the connection is encrypted makes it impossible for any hackers or third parties to follow what you’re doing.

Why get one?

There are lots of reasons to get a VPN, and those in the know are increasingly urging people not to go online without one. Obvious candidates for a VPN are residents of countries where internet use is strictly regulated.

In China, for example, it’s impossible to access many social media networks and online content without using a VPN. For those in more liberal countries, however, there are still many advantages to changing your location.

Netflix have now cracked down on VPN users, restricting access to the service unless you disable your VPN, but in the past this was a great way for, for example, German-based viewers to access America-only TV shows.

Many other websites and services still allow VPNs, so users can go to areas that are normally off-limits to people based where they are.

Another big reason to use a VPN is for security. It’s common for hackers to monitor online activity, and VPN encryption prevents them from doing this. If you’re concerned about ISPs selling your data to marketing companies or even shadier organizations, a VPN can stop this too.

Ever used public WiFi? If you’ve done this without a good VPN, you’ve been taking a big risk. Public WiFi networks are the perfect spot for hackers to gain access to what you’re doing, and even infect your computer with malware. A VPN redirects and encrypts your connection, so you’re essentially no longer browsing on the unprotected public network.

Some things to look out for

While VPNs can be a massive boost to security when used properly, they also carry a few risks and can even be dangerous when misused.

Free VPNs are particularly untrustworthy. There are many of these out there, and they should raise a few eyebrows. Many of them will use you as a ‘node’, meaning other users of the same VPN service can access the internet through your IP address.

To break that down more simply, whenever you use a VPN you’re accessing the internet through somebody else’s address. With many free VPNs, you become one of the addresses other people can hide behind.

Which isn’t a huge issue, until they start breaking the law.

Some VPNs also keep logs of your activity. This isn’t a problem most of the time, and the records are only accessed when illegal activity is flagged up. If privacy is a really big concern for you, however, it may be worth looking into what your VPN is really doing.

Some less-upstanding VPNs (it tends to be those pesky free ones again) might even actively gather your data and sell it to marketing firms.

VPNs also slow your machine down. All that encrypting takes up a lot of processing power, so if your computer is old and slow you might feel the pinch.

Really, most of these issues can be avoided by paying for a trustworthy VPN. They’re generally extremely affordable, so there’s really no good reason to go for a free service, and LOTS of good reasons to avoid them.

Avast’s own SecureLine VPN is a great option, and prices start at just $59.99 per year. That’s about the price of a beer each month – not bad considering the benefits.

You can even get cover for up to five devices for a little more money. Avast’s VPN is also part of the new bundle package, which provides cover from all angles for half the price of buying each product individually.

So wise up, and get protected before you hit the internet. You never know who could be watching…

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