One caveat: VPNs are still great for certain applications, such as in authoritarian countries where citizens use technology to make it appear as if they are using the internet in other places. This gives them access to web content that they normally cannot see. But as a mainstream privacy tool, this is no longer an ideal solution.
It sent me down a rabbit hole looking for alternatives to paying for a VPN. I ended up using web tools to build my own private network for free which wasn’t easy. But I’ve also learned that many casual users may not even need a VPN anymore.
Here’s what you need to know.
What has changed about VPNs
Not that long ago, many websites lacked security mechanisms to prevent bad actors from listening to what people were doing when they were browsing their sites, which opened the door for their data to be hacked. It has helped VPN services become a must-have security product. VPN providers have offered to help hide browsing information from users by creating an encrypted tunnel on their servers, through which all of your web traffic passes.
But over the past five years, the internet has undergone immense changes. Many privacy advocates and tech companies have pushed website builders to rewrite their sites to support HTTPS, a security protocol that encrypts traffic and fixes most of the aforementioned issues.
You have probably noticed the padlock symbol on your web browser. A locked padlock indicates that a site is using HTTPS; an unlocked means it is not and is therefore more likely to be attacked. These days, it’s rare to stumble upon a site with an unlocked padlock – 95% of the first 1,000 websites are now encrypted with HTTPS, according to W3Techs, a site that compiles data on web technologies.
This means VPNs are no longer an essential tool when most people browse the web on public Wi-Fi, said Dan Guido, managing director of Trail of Bits, a cybersecurity company.
“It is very difficult to find cases where people have been injured by connecting to the airport, cafe or hotel Wi-Fi,” he said. Nowadays, he added, the people who benefit from a VPN are those who work in high-risk areas and who could be targets, such as journalists who correspond with sensitive sources and chief executives. company holding trade secrets while traveling abroad.