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If you’re looking for a more secure way to use public Wi-Fi, know the benefits and risks of Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps.

How VPN Apps Work

When you use a VPN app, certain data from your connected device or phone — like your browsing history or data from the apps you’re using — is sent through servers owned by the company providing the VPN. Most VPN apps encrypt, or scramble, the data sent between your phone and the VPN server.

Also, using a VPN can help protect your location, because to sites you visit it looks like you are located where the server is, not where you actually are. VPNs may also promise to provide privacy protections – for example, to make it more difficult for other companies to track you. But as noted below, the VPN company itself may track you for advertising purposes.

What To Know Before You Download a VPN App

When you use a VPN app, you’re giving the company that developed that app permission to see your online activity — like the websites you visit and what you type in online, including sensitive personal data. Depending on how the VPN is set up, the VPN company could even be able to read information that you send when you use encrypted sites like banking sites. So, do your research to choose a VPN app wisely.

Before you download a VPN app, here are a few things to know and do:

  • Research the VPN app. Search online for the app’s name with words like “review,” “complaint,” or “scam. Look at screenshots, the app’s description, its content rating, and user reviews on places like the app store (like the Apple Store or Google Play). Some companies may say their app is secure or has good privacy protections in place. But you can’t trust those promises on their own. Do your own research to see what you find out, and then make your decision.
  • Review the permissions the app requests. VPN apps will present the permissions they request on their app store page, during installation, or at the time they use the permission. It’s useful information that tells you what types of data the app will access on your device. VPN apps need access to your internet traffic to function, but some apps request additional sensitive permissions — like ones that let the app view your location, or get your phone number and information about your calls. Consider whether the permission makes sense given the app’s purpose, and whether you trust the app developer with that access.
  • Know that not all VPN apps encrypt your information. Some apps call themselves a VPN but use protocols that don’t encrypt the websites you visit, or what you type online. Or they encrypt only some of what you do. To find out if a particular app encrypts your information, search online on independent review sites.
  • Know that VPN apps don’t usually make you entirely anonymous. If you use a VPN app, your internet service provider (ISP) or public Wi-Fi service probably won’t see the websites you visit and the information you put online. But your VPN app can. And you aren’t necessarily anonymous to websites you visit, either. So if you, say, fill out a form with your email address, the VPN will be able to track you.
  • Know that a VPN app might share your information with other companies. Many VPN apps are free because they sell advertising within the app, or share your information and online activity with other companies. If you’re using the VPN app to keep your traffic private, make sure you review the VPN app’s terms, conditions, and privacy policy to see if it shares information with other companies — like advertisers. And, if it does share your information, find out what information it shares.
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