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On Public Wi-Fi, a VPN is Your Friend

You can almost feel it in the air. Wi-Fi is everywhere. And if you tap into public Wi-Fi, do it with a VPN. 

The keyword in public Wi-Fi is “public.” That means anyone else on the network can see what you’re connecting to and what data you’re passing along, with a little effort. Your credit card number while you shop. Your password when you bank. That confidential contract you just sent to a client. And your logins for social media too. It’s all an open book to anyone who has the tools to snoop. 

What tools let them snoop? Network analyzers, or packet sniffers as many call them, can read the data traffic that travels across a network. And because public Wi-Fi networks are open, so is the data traffic — loaded with your credentials, personal info, and so on. A bad actor can gather up data with a packet sniffer, analyze it, and pluck out the sensitive bits of information that are of value. 

This is where a VPN comes in. It makes any network private. Even on public Wi-Fi. 

Let’s take a look at what a VPN is, how it works, and why it’s your friend on public Wi-Fi.    

What is a VPN and how does it protect me?   

A VPN is an app that you install on your device to help keep your data safe as you browse the internet. When you turn on your VPN app, your device makes a secure connection to a VPN server that routes internet traffic. Securely. This keeps your online activity private on any network, shielding it from prying eyes. Thus, while you’re on a VPN, you can browse and bank with the confidence that your passwords, credentials, and financial information are secure. If any malicious actors attempt to intercept your web traffic, they’ll only see garbled content, thanks to your VPN’s encryption functionality.    

Does a VPN change my IP address?   

Every internet connection is assigned a unique set of numbers called an IP address, which is tied to information such as geographic location or an Internet Service Provider (ISP). A VPN replaces your actual IP address to make it look like you’ve connected to the internet from the physical location of the VPN server, rather than your real location. This is just one reason so many people use VPNs.   

How can I use a VPN to change my IP address?  

To change your IP address, you open your VPN app, select the server location you’d like to connect to, and you’re done. You’re now browsing with a new IP address.  

When should I use a VPN?   

An ideal case for using a VPN is when you’re using public Wi-Fi at the airport, a café, hotel, or just about any place “free Wi-Fi” is offered. The reason being is that these are open networks, and any somewhat enterprising cybercriminal can tap into these networks and harvest sensitive information as a result. One survey showed that 39% of internet users worldwide understand public Wi-Fi is unsafe, yet some users still bank, shop, and do other sensitive things on public Wi-Fi despite the understood risks.  

Further, you have your privacy to consider. You can use a VPN to help stop advertisers from tracking you. Searches you perform and websites you visit won’t get traced back to you, which can prevent advertisers from gleaning information about you and your online habits in general. Moreover, some ISPs collect the browsing history of their users and share it with advertisers and other third parties. A VPN can prevent this type of collection as well.  

Can a VPN protect my search history?   

A VPN protects your search history through the secure connection you share. When you search for a website, or type a URL into your navigation bar, your device sends something called a DNS request, which translates the website into the IP address of the web server. This is how your browser can find the website and serve its content to you. By encrypting your DNS requests, a VPN can hide your search habits and history from those that might use that info as part of building a profile of you. Others might use this info in a wide variety of ways, from legitimately serving targeted ads to nefarious social engineering.    

Are VPNs and “Incognito Mode” and “Private Mode” in browsers the same thing?  

Note that a VPN is quite different and far, far more comprehensive than using “Private Mode” or “Incognito Mode” on your browser. Those modes only hide your search history locally on your device—not from others on the internet, like ISPs and advertisers.  

Does a VPN make me anonymous?   

No, a VPN can’t make you anonymous. Not entirely anyway. They help secure what you’re doing, but your ISP still knows when you’re using the internet. They just can’t see what you’re doing, what sites you visit, or how long you’ve been on a site.   

What about services like Apple Private Relay?   

Apple’s Private Relay is similar to a VPN in that it changes your IP address so websites you visit can’t tell exactly where you are. It works on iOS and Macs as part of an iCloud+ subscription. Yet there is one important distinction: it only protects your privacy while surfing with the Safari browser.  

Per Apple, it works like this:  

When Private Relay is enabled, your requests are sent through two separate, secure internet relays. Your IP address is visible to your network provider and to the first relay, which is operated by Apple. Your DNS records are encrypted, so neither party can see the address of the website you’re trying to visit. The second relay, which is operated by a third-party content provider, generates a temporary IP address, decrypts the name of the website you requested, and connects you to the site. All of this is done using the latest internet standards to maintain a high-performance browsing experience while protecting your privacy. 

Check to see if Apple Private Relay is available in your country or region. If you travel somewhere that Private Relay isn’t available, it’ll automatically turn off and will notify you when it’s unavailable and once more when it’s active again. You can learn more about it here , and how you can enable it on your Apple devices.  

Do I need a VPN if I have Apple Private Relay?   

Private Relay only works with Safari on iOS and macOS as part of an iCloud+ subscription. Even if you are using an Apple device, a VPN is still a good idea because it’ll protect the information that your device sends outside of Safari — such as any info passed along by your apps or any other browsers you might use.  

How to get your own VPN.  

An unlimited VPN with bank-grade encryption comes as part of your McAfee+ subscription and provides the security and privacy benefits above with bank-grade encryption. Additionally, it turns on automatically any time you connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi network, which takes the guesswork out of when you absolutely need to use it.   

In all, our VPN makes it practically impossible for cybercriminals or advertisers to access so that what you do online remains anonymous, so you can enjoy your time online with confidence.  

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