The world of VPN users is a diverse one. There are multiple communities of people who rely on Virtual Private Networks, from security-conscious travelers and sensible students to small businesses worried about safety, to cunning marketers who want to get ahead.
If you’re wondering do you need a VPN, there’s a good chance that you already fit into one of these categories, and it’s probably time to download a client and protect your online activity. But if you’re unsure of where you fit in, read on.
Let’s get to know the seven tribes of VPN users, and why they have come to rely on an extra layer of online protection:
#1 Wired global wanderers
These days, globe-trotting travelers rely on technology in multiple ways. From staying entertained on epic coach journeys or streaming music on tropical beaches to arranging accommodation, internet access is a key part of modern travel kits.
So why do people use VPN services when they travel? Actually, there are plenty of reasons. Some use VPNs to work around the filtering applied by travel booking websites, allowing them to find cheaper air or train fares than would otherwise be the case. Others like to access services like Netflix in other countries, broadening their choice of TV or movies.
Security is also a big issue for tech-savvy travelers. When you move around the globe, it’s often necessary to use unsecured Wi-fi networks, and in those cases installing a VPN is a good way to shield yourself as you surf the web.
#2 Torrenters tired of poor privacy and ISP blocks
Another huge chunk of the VPN community is made up of serial torrenters. Torrenting is a huge (if often underground) activity, which lets users share and download large files at will. Because this tends to involve copyrighted content like games, music or films, this can lead to worries about surveillance.
By using a VPN, torrenters can give themselves an extra layer of protection while they build their entertainment libraries. Good VPNs won’t limit torrent speeds massively, and can head off DMCA notices from ISPs, or worse – legal prosecution. That’s not a minor issue, by the way. Back in 2010, an organization called the US Copyright Group sued 16,000 BitTorrent users for breaching intellectual property rights, resulting in fines of between $1,000 and $3,000.
So if you torrent and are asking yourself “should I use a VPN”, the answer is almost certainly “yes.” And it could save you a lot of money.
#3 Movie and TV fans who love to stream
But what about accessing mainstream movie and TV providers? Do you need a VPN to watch the shows or films you love? Again, a huge number of people have elected to use VPNs alongside streaming services like Netflix or YouTube, and there are some very good reasons to do so.
In the case of Netflix, the streaming company operates sophisticated geo-filters which limit the content available in certain locations. So, a viewer in Paris might have fewer episodes of CSI to watch than someone in Montreal or New York. And that’s not right.
VPNs have long been an effective way to work around geo-blockers. Netflix and providers like Amazon have improved their defenses against VPNs, but elite networks can still provide global access to content, wherever users happen to be.
Alternatively, movie fans could use VPNs to protect themselves while they use other web-based streaming services. In these cases, there may be concerns about copyright, so a VPN can be a sensible option to head off unwanted snoopers.
#4 Savvy students who need to beat filters
VPNs have even found their way into the school systems of the world, and students have become one of the fastest growing groups of users. Why? Well, the answer tends to revolve around the filters used by schools or universities to limit the material students can access.
In some cases, this has led to controversy, as users have sought access to adult content or sites where they can cyber-bully their fellow students. But there are legitimate reasons for students to investigate VPNs.
For one thing, it’s good practice for the world of work and adulthood, when cyber-security is a huge part of everyday life (or at least, it should be). VPNs can also protect against unwanted intrusion from corporations or authorities, while not all academic filters are desirable. Sometimes, students are denied access to social networks or information sources that could actually enhance their education.
Finally, students are also more likely than most people to work remotely in libraries or coffee shops. When they do, they need to be protected against snoopers, especially if they are sending messages to their friends or family. So there are many reasons why youngsters have started asking do I need a VPN?
#5 Freedom fighters working around government censorship
In a world where repressive, undemocratic governments are as common as ever, it might seem a bit trivial to talk about students working around school filters. But the VPNs they use are almost exactly the same as those used by citizens of authoritarian countries where censorship is the norm.
In countries like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Syria, it can be impossible to access sites which those elsewhere in the world take for granted (imagine living in a world without Google, Twitter or YouTube). Moreover, unprotected web users in repressive countries should expect their every move to be watched, recorded and – potentially – used against them.
VPNs have become a vital weapon in the battle against censorship and repression. By installing reputable clients, users can evade web filters and create tunnels around their communications, nullifying even the world’s most complex surveillance systems.
#6 People who see the whole world as their office
We talked about travelers earlier as a key part of the global VPN community, but there’s another group of nomads who have come to depend upon Virtual Private Networks in their everyday lives: remote workers.
Remote working is becoming ever more popular as companies seek to be more flexible and attract the best talent, and as freelancing expands as a working arrangement. That’s why coffee shops are crammed with people on their laptops, hammering away for hours.
This is handy for all sorts of reasons, but it presents some problems that made remote workers wonder “should I use a VPN?”. Security is the main concern, especially when workers have to use unsecured Wi-Fi networks in public places. Those networks are notoriously porous and prone to hacking, and all information passed over them can be accessed fairly easily.
Because of this, companies often set up their own VPNs for workers to use, and freelancers tend to add a VPN client to their setup when they start frequenting coffee shops. It’s especially reassuring for companies, who can let employees work away from the office without worrying about breaches of their IT policy, spoofing attacks and similar nightmares.
Overall, using a VPN is just the sensible way to work, enabling information to flow freely and securely, while maintaining the flexibility which makes remote working so attractive.
#7 Market researchers who need to stay under the radar
There’s another group of professionals who value the security and privacy that VPNs bring. Market researchers have come to use VPNs extensively as they research rival companies or potential leads, letting them browse vital information without giving away their identity.
Website owners can derive a huge amount of information from visitors via their IP address and tracking cookies, but well-made VPNs can neutralize these techniques, providing genuine anonymity. In a world where information is money, and where the tiniest details can lead to the commercial advantage, this anonymity is absolutely essential.
But there’s another side to how marketers use VPNs. Search engines like Google tend to limit results to the area around where users are located. But for market researchers, this can be a huge problem.
For instance, if I’m based in New York but want to launch a product or service in Texas, I won’t benefit from knowing about the competition in New York State. I want to know about Dallas or Houston. But to get this information, I would need to route my IP through servers in Texas – which is exactly what VPNs can do. So they provide a really neat technical tool for marketers to exploit.
Which VPN tribe do you belong to?
By now, you probably know where you fit into the worldwide community of VPN users. In fact, most of us belong to multiple categories. Whether we are working, traveling, studying, socializing or watching TV, VPNs can make a huge difference to our lives, boosting our privacy and security in a dangerous online environment.