Updated On August 22, 2017 - 9:44am

Do You Need a Virtual Private Network?

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have been in the news a lot since April, when the Federal Communications Commission’s strict privacy regulations of 2016 were repealed. Although the regulations never had a chance to go into effect, the repeal still alters the personal privacy landscape. The FCC is now barred from introducing similar regulations to protect consumers, and Internet providers have the green light to track and sell consumer browsing data to advertisers without permission.

Many people are responding by installing personal VPNs to help guard their privacy. But not all VPNs are effective or trustworthy, and some even capitalize by selling consumer data in the same way that ISPs can.

Do you need a VPN, and how should you evaluate one before using it?

What Are VPNs?

A virtual private network is an application that creates a secure “tunnel” between your device and the device to which you are connecting. While passing through this tunnel, information you send and receive is encrypted. While you’re on a VPN, it is more difficult for anyone to spy on your online traffic or activities, even if you’re using public Wi-Fi.

VPNs help mask your IP address, which makes it difficult for anyone to see who you are.  On the negative side, using a VPN can slow down your web browsing, and some sites, such as Netflix, might not work with VPNs.

Ultimately, there is no completely secure or anonymous way to browse the internet. While VPNs can offer increased privacy, it is not invulnerable. A more anonymous way of accessing the internet, including the “deep web” that is not indexed by search engines, is Tor. Tor uses relays to disguise your traffic and identity. However, Tor is best left to advanced users: it’s easy to stumble upon some hidden sites that could get you into trouble. Tor also tends to be extremely slow.

How to Choose a VPN Provider 

Besides helping to protect your information and identity from eavesdroppers, another important feature of VPNs is that they make your personal identity and activity known to the VPN service provider. Organizations, including many departments within UCLA, often require the use of their own VPN services to ensure all network activity is traceable to a known person. This feature helps protect the security of the network and organization.

Bruin OnLine (BOL) offers faculty, staff and students free downloads of Cisco’s AnyConnect VPN for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux. AnyConnect is also available in the App Store for iOS devices, Google Play for Android devices, and the Nokia Store for Symbian devices. In most cases, you should choose the SSL (Secure Socket Layer) client, which provides high security and reliability, compatibility with most networks, and IPv6 tunneling and connectivity, even on IPv4 networks.

IT Services recommends using the BOL Cisco client whenever possible. However, if you prefer to use another, non-UCLA VPN service for your personal business, a paid one will usually offer you more features and security than a free one. Here are some things to check when evaluating a VPN product:

  • The number of devices that can use it (the more, the better)
  • The number and distribution of the provider’s servers (again: the more, the better)
  • The VPN interface, including software and mobile apps, and ease of use
  • Bandwidth—it should be unlimited
  • User reviews on the provider’s customer support
  • The terms of service: Does the provider keep logs of user activity? If so, what do they do with that data? What types of activity does the VPN permit? Look for providers who don’t log your data.

Do I Really Need a VPN?

Even if your online activities are completely benign and you don’t care if someone tracks them, it’s still a good idea to use a VPN. It will help protect your personal data—user names and passwords for sites you visit, and information you transmit via email, instant message, or web form—and enable you to be proactive in guarding your privacy, especially when you’re using public Wi-Fi.