Once you have installed a virtual private network (VPN), your phone will no longer connect directly with your Internet destination, explains Miriam Ruhenstroth from the website Mobilsicher.de.
Instead, an encrypted connection, also known as a tunnel, is established on a server of the VPN provider. From there, data traffic is directed to the destination and back to your device via the tunnel.
Above all, this is useful when you don't know how secure a network connection is – for example, if you're using an open WiFi network in a cafe or at an airport.
Without a VPN, it's possible that third parties could intercept sensitive data you enter on a web page. An encrypted tunnel means that no one can read your data traffic.
Besides security, VPN apps offer another advantage – they allow you to connect to servers around the world. "So you could pretend that the network traffic is coming from the US," says Dusan Zivadinovic from c't magazine.
That means you can exponentially increase your access to video streaming services.
However, there are drawbacks. Not all apps will work inside a tunnel. Some services from Google and some online shops don't work well within an active VPN app, Ruhenstroth says. Messaging apps can also have problems connecting with their network.
Another problem is that video streaming services are playing a constant cat-and-mouse game to block the VPN vendors from accessing their content.
Connection speed can also be an issue. With many providers, the connection is slow because it has to detour via the VPN server, Zivadinovic says.
Many VPN vendors advertise anonymity as a benefit, but even within a VPN, it's impossible to achieve completely, Ruhenstroth says. Individual browsers or devices can still be identified in many cases. And logging into something like an email portal will also do away with your anonymity.
And then there's the question of trustworthiness. Anyone who directs their traffic through the servers of a VPN provider must rely on it not being read by them. Of course, all vendors promise this.
"The normal consumer definitely cannot prove this," Zivadinovic says, so the user should never take promises of security at 100% face value. Ruhenstroth warns that "there are many, many shady VPN services."
So how can you recognise a trustworthy provider? "A good indicator is a look at the business model," Ruhenstroth says.
If there's only a free option and no transparent description of the business and usage conditions, she advises staying away. A good starting point is a free basic offer and a paid version that provides more functionality.
The location of the VPN provider is also a factor. Data protection conditions and cooperation with authorities differ greatly between Europe, the United States and many Asian countries. In the end, Ruhenstroth says, "you have to rely on trust a bit." — dpa
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