It's very convenient to bank, shop and post photos and status updates online. It means you don't have to physically go to the bank, the store or travel long distances to catch up with family and friends who might be scattered around the country.
The drawback to doing these and other things online is that your information is traveling through the internet. It isn't a straight shot between you and the site you're using, either. The data can bounce through servers around the country or even around the world.
That gives hackers many opportunities to steal your information. If they can grab it in transit, they can learn your passwords, details about you they shouldn't know, or even pretend to be you to trick your bank or other secure sites.
That's especially true if you're using public Wi-Fi. Hackers on the same network have plenty of tools to snoop on what you're doing.
Aside from hackers, the government and your internet service provider can also monitor your connection to see where you go, and, if they want, what you do. If you aren't a fan of that, and few people are, there is a way you can keep these parties out of your business.
The state of internet security
Before we talk about that, however, let's do a quick review of the secure measure that's already in place. Any finance, medical or shopping site that's even a little security conscious is going to provide you with an encrypted connection.
The encryption scrambles your traffic so hackers can't get your passwords or other information. You can tell encryption is running on a site when the web address in your browser starts with "https://".
Aside from the types of sites we've already mentioned, Facebook, Google and other major sites have adopted always-on encryption as well. However, not every site you encounter will and some only provide partial encryption.
That means they might not encrypt the connection until you log in, which gives hackers a possible opening to steal your password. Or they only encrypt your login information and leave things like email messages exposed to traffic snoops.
Fortunately, more sites are moving to full-time encryption. Most major news sites do that, and you probably did not even notice.
Of course, you don't have to wait for others to provide that level of security. You can fully encrypt your connection today.
To encrypt your connection, you can use a virtual private network (VPN). In the business world, VPNs let employees working remotely create an encrypted connection with the company network so they can work safely, as shown in this handy diagram:
Windows and Macs both have VPN features built in just for this purpose. However, for the average home user or traveler, these aren't very helpful because you need something to connect to. That's where a third-party VPN service comes in handy.
A VPN service lets you create an encrypted connection with one of its servers and you use that server to browse the internet. The connection is encrypted through the server, so the VPN can't see your traffic either. OK, it's a bit more complicated than that behind the scenes, but that's the result.
To start, you need to choose a program or service to use. There are dozens that offer a mix of security features, privacy options, server locations and other considerations.
For the average user, it's important to make sure they have U.S.-based servers, know how much bandwidth you can use, and that they don't keep logs of your activity. Paid services will require some personal information and payment information, naturally, but you can find one that minimizes what it needs to know.
Some services will accept prepaid cards and alternative payments that are more difficult to trace back to you. However, even if you give the service your information, as long as it doesn't keep logs of what you do with the service then it doesn't matter so much.
Using a VPN
Once you've installed your VPN of choice, fire it up and let it establish a connection. You can then browse the internet like you always do. The traffic will flow to your computer, tablet or smartphone through the VPN's server and over the encrypted connection.
This means any unencrypted sites you visit will be safe from prying eyes and encrypted sites will basically have double encryption. As a side bonus, your internet service provider will no longer be able to see what sites you're visiting. It will only see your connection to the VPN.
Note: If you're searching for VPNs, you'll see VPN services and "proxy" services. A proxy service can disguise your computer's identity, but it doesn't encrypt your connection. Always go with a VPN for security.
The sites you're visiting also won't know where you're coming from. They'll just see the connection from the VPN. That means the government will have a harder time tracking what you're doing as well.
Disclaimer: While the government will have a harder time seeing your activity, it isn't impossible to find out. So, keep what you're doing legal.
We strongly recommend using a VPN when you're on public Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi makes it easy for hackers on the same network to snoop on what you're doing. The VPN encryption should stop them.
Even then, you shouldn't do anything too sensitive on public Wi-Fi, like online banking. Save that for home, or use a cellular connection on the go.
More things to know
Using a VPN is a good way to increase your security, but it does have a cost. While most VPN services claim otherwise, it can slow down your connection.
That's because your traffic is making more stops between you and the site you're using. If you find that your browsing is sluggish, you can turn off the VPN while using sites that aren't critical.
You could run into obstacles if your VPN hooks you up with a server in another country. Some things, like streaming online video, are often region locked. So if you find YouTube, Netflix or another site refusing to play a video because it says you aren't in the U.S., you'll need to adjust your VPN settings or find one with more U.S.-based servers.
Similarly, some sites that you use regularly might say they don't recognize you. You might need to go through security procedures to prove you are who you say you are before you can log in.
While the VPN will hide your surfing from your ISP and the sites you're visiting, your computer, smartphone or tablet are still recording your browsing history. If you don't want that recorded, you'll need to browse in private or incognito mode. Learn how to activate that in your browser.
A VPN is just about the connection between you and a website. If you choose to store personal information on a website, it can still be lost in a data breach. So, as always, be careful what sites you choose to trust with your information.
While a VPN encrypts your connection between you and the VPN server, the connection between the VPN server and the site you're visiting isn't necessarily going to be secure. While the odds of a hacker breaking in at that point are minimal, it's still possible.
Be sure to check your browser's address bar to make sure you see the "https://" before sending any sensitive information to a website. If a site doesn't offer an encrypted connection for sensitive information, then you probably don't want to be using it, VPN or not.