When to use a VPN

I wrote this in a Chromebook forum somewhere, and thought it deserved permanent posting. I updated this posting in 2023.

“I want to use a VPN because I don’t want anyone else reading my email”.

If you are using Gmail in a browser, you are using an encrypted service that it is near-impossible for anyone else to look at. (The same goes for any other HTTPS connection - where you see the padlock in the Chrome address bar). If someone else is on your network, the worst they can possibly do is see that you’re connecting to Gmail; but they can’t see anything more than that.

Chrome has inbuilt protection against “man in the middle” attacks - where a computer pretends it’s Gmail and handles all your stuff for you, connecting on to the ‘real’ Gmail and copying everything. This is very difficult to achieve, particularly if you are using Chrome.

In short, there is no need to use a VPN if your only concern is to stop other people reading your email. Just using Gmail in a Chrome browser is perfectly safe.

So what use is a VPN?

A VPN is useful if you are:

a) using a website that isn’t “secure” (i.e. doesn’t have a padlock). Anyone else on the network can see exactly what page you’re using and what your interactions are with that website. In most cases, you shouldn’t really be using those websites if you are concerned about being compromised: but there are few websites left like this.

b) using a website that you don’t want your ISP to know about. Your ISP knows every website you visit, even a heavily encrypted website. But if it’s a secure website, the only thing your ISP will know is the domain-name: nothing more than that.

c) wanting to circumvent geo-locks for content. A VPN can help you appear as if your computer is in a different place.

d) wanting to hide your actual location (maybe you’re sending a leaked document to a journalist). When you send an email or visit a website, your computer will leave your IP address - your own address on the internet that may help people find out which city you live in. It may reveal more about your machine as well. (If you really are wanting to hide your tracks, don’t use a VPN: use something like Tor from a coffee shop.)

e) wanting to hide your internet traffic from someone who is monitoring your traffic. Work in a hotel room, and in many cases, you’ll be asked to log into the free wifi by using your name and room number. This could allow that hotel to connect your personal details to the websites you visit.

A VPN carries all your internet traffic - and it knows who you are and where you are. That demands a lot of trust - and if you’re using a free VPN, you’re trusting someone who you’re not even paying.

If you use a modern device, running the latest software, there’s really no need to think of using a VPN in most circumstances.

You should probably be much more concerned about someone deliberately ‘phishing’ — using clever social techniques to get your Gmail username and password.

After all that, if you want to use a VPN, I’d recommend ProtonVPN.