Privacy

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable. Most important, VPN services establish secure and encrypted connections to provide greater privacy than even a secured Wi-Fi hotspot.

Why do you need a VPN service?

Surfing the web or transacting on an unsecured Wi-Fi network means you could be exposing your private information and browsing habits. That’s why a virtual private network, better known as a VPN, should be a must for anyone concerned about their online security and privacy.

Think about all the times you’ve been on the go, reading emails while in line at the coffee shop, or checking your bank account while waiting at the doctor’s office. Unless you were logged into a private Wi-Fi network that requires a password, any data transmitted during your online session could be vulnerable to eavesdropping by strangers using the same network.

The encryption and anonymity that a VPN provides helps protect your online activities: sending emails, shopping online, or paying bills. VPNs also help keep your web browsing anonymous.

How a VPN protects your IP address and privacy

VPNs essentially create a data tunnel between your local network and an exit node in another location, which could be thousands of miles away, making it seem as if you’re in another place. This benefit allows online freedom, or the ability to access your favorite apps and websites while on the go.

Here’s a closer look at how a virtual private network works. VPNs use encryption to scramble data when it’s sent over a Wi-Fi network. Encryption makes the data unreadable. Data security is especially important when using a public Wi-Fi network, because it prevents anyone else on the network from eavesdropping on your internet activity.

There’s another side to privacy. Without a VPN, your internet service provider can know your entire browsing history. With a VPN, your search history is hidden. That’s because your web activity will be associated with the VPN server’s IP address, not yours. A VPN service provider may have servers all over the world. That means your search activity could appear to originate at any one of them. Keep in mind, search engines also track your search history, but they’ll associate that information with an IP address that’s not yours. Again, your VPN will keep your online activity private.

VPN privacy: What does a VPN hide?

A VPN can hide a lot of information that can put your privacy at risk. Here are five of them.

1. Your browsing history

It’s no secret where you go on the internet. Your internet service provider and your web browser can track just about everything you do on the internet. A lot of the websites you visit can also keep a history. Web browsers can track your search history and tie that information to your IP address.

Here are two examples why you may want to keep your browsing history private. Maybe you have a medical condition and you’re searching the web for information about treatment options. Guess what? Without a VPN, you’ve automatically shared that information and may start receiving targeted ads that could draw further attention to your condition.

Or maybe you just want to price airline tickets for a flight next month. The travel sites you visit know you’re looking for tickets and they might display fares that aren’t the cheapest available.

These are just a few isolated examples. Keep in mind your internet service provider may be able to sell your browsing history. Even so-called private browsers may not be so private.

2. Your IP address and location

Anyone who captures your IP address can access what you’ve been searching on the internet and where you were located when you searched. Think of your IP address as the return address you’d put on a letter. It leads back to your device.

Since a VPN uses an IP address that’s not your own, it allows you to maintain your online privacy and search the web anonymously. You’re also protected against having your search history gathered, viewed, or sold. Keep in mind, your search history can still be viewed if you are using a public computer or one provided by your employer, school, or other organization.

3. Your location for streaming

You might pay for streaming services that enable you to watch things like professional sports. When you travel outside the country, the streaming service may not be available. There are good reasons for this, including contractual terms and regulations in other countries. Even so, a VPN would allow you to select an IP address in your home country. That would likely give you access to any event shown on your streaming service. You may also be able to avoid data or speed throttling.

4. Your devices

A VPN can help protect your devices, including desktop computer, laptop, tablet, and smart phone from prying eyes. Your devices can be prime targets for cybercriminals when you access the internet, especially if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network. In short, a VPN helps protect the data you send and receive on your devices so hackers won’t be able to watch your every move.

5. Your web activity — to maintain internet freedom

Hopefully, you’re not a candidate for government surveillance, but who knows. Remember, a VPN protects against your internet service provider seeing your browsing history. So you’re protected if a government agency asks your internet service provider to supply records of your internet activity. Assuming your VPN provider doesn’t log your browsing history (some VPN providers do), your VPN can help protect your internet freedom.

How can a VPN help protect against identity theft?

Identity theft occurs when thieves steal your personal information and use it to commit crimes in your name — like taking over or opening new accounts, filing tax returns in your name, or renting or buying property. A VPN can help protect against identity theft by helping protect your data. It creates an encrypted tunnel for the data you send and receive that’s out of reach of cyberthieves.

If your smartphone's Wi-Fi is enabled at all times, your device could be vulnerable without you ever knowing it. Everyday activities like online shopping, banking and browsing can expose your information, making you vulnerable to cybercrime.

A VPN can protect the information you share or access using your devices. That’s especially important when using a public Wi-Fi network, where a cyberthief on the same network could capture your login credentials and the credit card number you type in when you shop online.

You can’t prevent identity theft. No one can. Some security aspects — like a data breach at an organization where you have an account — are out of your control. But a VPN can help safeguard the information you send from and receive on your devices.

What should you look for in VPN services?

The VPN market is crowded with options, so it’s important to consider your needs when you’re shopping for a VPN.

Think about what is important to you. Do you want to be able to surf the web anonymously by masking your IP address? Are you afraid that your information could be stolen on public Wi-Fi? Are you a frequent traveler who wants to be able to watch your favorite shows while you’re on the go.

A good VPN can help you check all three boxes, but here are some other points to consider.

How to choose a VPN

A smart way to stay secure when using public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN solution. But what’s the best way to choose a virtual private network? Here are some questions to ask when you’re choosing a VPN provider.

  1. Do they respect your privacy? The point of using a VPN is to protect your privacy, so it’s crucial that your VPN provider respects your privacy, too. They should have a no-log policy, which means that they never track or log your online activities.
  2. Do they run the most current protocol? OpenVPN provides stronger security than other protocols, such as PPTP. OpenVPN is an open-source software that supports all the major operating systems.
  3. Do they set data limits? Depending on your internet usage, bandwidth may be a large deciding factor for you. Make sure their services match your needs by checking to see if you’ll get full, unmetered bandwidth without data limits.
  4. Where are the servers located? Decide which server locations are important to you. If you want to appear as if you’re accessing the Web from a certain locale, make sure there’s a server in that country.
  5. Will you be able to set up VPN access on multiple devices? If you are like the average consumer, you typically use between three and five devices. Ideally, you’d be able to use the VPN on all of them at the same time.
  6. How much will it cost? If price is important to you, then you may think that a free VPN is the best option. Remember, however, that some VPN services may not cost you money, but you might “pay” in other ways, such as being served frequent advertisements or having your personal information collected and sold to third parties. If you compare paid vs. free options, you may find that free VPNs:
  • don’t offer the most current or secure protocols
  • don’t offer the highest bandwidth and connection speeds to free users
  • do have a higher disconnection rate
  • don’t have as many servers in as many countries globally
  • don’t offer support

There are many points to consider when you’re choosing a VPN, so do your homework to make sure you’re getting the right fit for your needs. Regardless of which provider you choose, rest assured that a good VPN will provide more security, privacy, and anonymity online than a public Wi-Fi hotspot can.

VPN glossary

Learning about VPNs may seem like it requires a specialized vocabulary. Here’s a glossary with definitions of some of the most common terms you’ll see.

AES encryption

Encryption is essential to helping keep your data unreadable by hackers, private companies, and possibly by government agencies. Encryption jumbles up your data so that others can't make sense of it without the specific decryption key. AES, which stands for Advanced Encryption Standard, was an encryption method developed by Belgium cryptographers Joan Daemen and Vincent Rijmen. In 2002, AES became the U.S. federal standard for encryption. It has since become the standard form of encryption for the rest of the world, too.

Browser history

A record of all your internet activity using a particular web browser, including keywords you searched for and websites you accessed.

Geo-restrictions

One of the main reasons users rely on VPNs? They want to get around geo-restrictions. These restrictions are often put in place by entertainment companies that only want to distribute content to certain regions. For instance, Netflix might offer content in the United States that it doesn't show in the UK. It might offer programming in the UK that Netflix users in the United States can't access. By using a VPN with an IP address based in the UK, U.S. viewers can try to access Netflix programming that isn't available in their home country. The VPN service — and the VPN connection — hides the location where the actual internet connection is made. Check your streaming service agreement for its Terms of Service, and also be mindful that some countries may have penalties for using VPN to circumvent its rules.

Google search history

A record of all your internet searches using the Google search engine.

IP address

IP stands for Internet Protocol, and an IP address is a series of numbers and periods that identifies a computer that’s using the Internet Protocol to send and receive data over a network.

Ipsec

IPsec is a series of protocols, or rules, that virtual private networks use to secure a private connection between two points, usually a device such as a laptop or smartphone and the Internet. Without these protocols, VPNs would not be able to encrypt data and ensure the data privacy of users. The name IPsec stands for Internet Protocol Security.

ISP

Short for Internet Service Provider, this is a service you pay for to connect to the internet. ISPs can record your browsing history and may be able to sell it to third parties, for marketing or other purposes.

Kill switch

Users sign up with a VPN provider for online privacy and data security. But what happens if a VPN provider’s network connection fails? Your computer or mobile device will default back to the public IP address provided by your ISP. This means that your online activity can now be tracked. A kill switch, though, prevents this from happening. If your VPN provider’s connection fails, the kill-switch feature severs your connection to the Internet completely. This way, your online activity won't be monitored by others. Not all VPN providers offer this feature, so look for it when shopping around.

L2TP

The acronym L2TP stands for Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, and is a series of rules that allow internet service providers to allow for VPNs. L2TP on its own, though, does not encrypt data, so does not provide complete privacy for users. That's why L2TP is usually used with IPsec to help protect the online privacy of users.

Public Wi-Fi

A wireless network in a public place that allows you to connect a computer or other device to the internet. Public Wi-Fi is often unprotected and potentially accessible to hackers.

Search engines

A service that allows you to search for information using keywords on the internet. Many popular search engines record your search history and can make money off that information.

Service provider

A company that provides a virtual private network — essentially routing your connection through a remote server and encrypting the data.

Simultaneous connections

You probably have plenty of devices connected to the internet at any one time, everything from your smartphone to your laptop to the desktop computer in your home office. Many VPN providers now offer protection for all your simultaneous internet connections with one account. This is important: You might think to log into a VPN before searching the internet on your laptop. But if your smartphone isn’t protected by a secure VPN, your browsing activity on that device won’t have protection.

Virtual private network

A VPN gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. It masks your internet protocol address to keep your online actions private. It provides secure and encrypted connections to provide greater privacy and security for the data you send and receive.

VPN connection

A virtual private network connection allows you to access the internet through a remote server, hiding your actual location and browser history, and encrypting your data.

VPN privacy

This refers to the privacy that using a VPN provides. For instance, a VPN encrypts your data, disguises your location, and conceals your browsing history and the data you transmit via the internet.

VPN clients

A VPN client makes it easier for users to connect to a virtual private network. That's because it is the actual software that is installed on your computer, phone or tablet. The most common operating systems, such as Android, Windows, and iOS, already come with VPN client software pre-installed. However, many users choose to work with third-party VPN clients that offer different features and user interfaces.

VPN protocols

VPN protocols are similar to a set of instructions. VPN providers use these protocols to make sure that users are able to connect securely to a virtual private network. There are several VPN protocols available, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. OpenVPN is one of the more popular protocols. Users like OpenVPN because it is secure and works with most operating systems. The biggest downside of OpenVPN? It can offer slower connection speeds than other protocols.

VPN provider

Synonymous with VPN service, this is a service you sign up for that allows you to connect to a virtual private network by providing a temporary IP address that hides your actual address.

VPN server

VPN services allow you to connect to the internet through remote servers that they either own or have access to. This disguises your location.

VPN service

A service you sign up for that allows you to connect to a virtual private network by providing a temporary IP address that hides your actual address.

VPN tunnel

You might sometimes hear your virtual private network referred to as a VPN tunnel. This is just another name for the encrypted connection between your device — a laptop, phone, tablet or desktop computer — and the internet. You can create a VPN tunnel at home or on public Wi-Fi. Once you are using a VPN tunnel to connect to the internet, your ISP, private companies, or the government can no longer see the sites you are browsing or the links you are clicking. A VPN tunnel also hides your IP address. Instead of showing your real location, the sites you surf will only register the location of the VPN provider with which you are working.

VPN web browser

A web browser that includes a built-in VPN service, allowing you to hide your browsing activity on the internet.

Web search history

A record of what you searched for on the internet. Your internet service provider and your web browser likely have a complete history of your internet search activity.

Wi-Fi

A wireless network using a radio frequency to connect your computer and other devices to the internet and each other.

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