The internet is a dangerous place. Criminals lurk in every dark alleyway, waiting for the ideal opportunity to steal your personal information. Credit card numbers, passwords and usernames - everything's fair game to the 21st-century cyber-criminal, and the VPN (virtual private network) is your first line of defence.
VPNs are essential for anyone who cares about privacy and protection against government or ISP snooping and if you're a regular user of wireless hotspots, a VPN can protect you from ne'er do wells logged onto the same connection.
They're also the go-to tool if you're looking to spoof your location and stream geo-restricted TV services. Ever wondered how to watch US Netflix or BBC iPlayer from Australia? A VPN is one of the tools you can use to do that.
VPNs can offer other useful tools as well. Annoyed at every Tom, Dick and Harry tracking you as you go about your business online? Some VPNs offer anti-tracking facilities so you can stay anonymous while browsing the internet. And VPNs are great for getting around local restrictions, too: if your company or ISP blocks certain applications - Skype, for instance, or certain types of websites - you can use a VPN to circumvent those blocks.
VPNs: How they work
VPNs open a secure “tunnel” between your laptop, phone or tablet and the VPN provider. The data in this tunnel is encrypted, and therefore unreadable to anyone who happens upon that data who might want to snoop on it.
That includes your ISP, the government and hackers who might want to steal your credit card or bank login details. That's not to say a VPN isn't crackable, just that it's a lot more difficult to do.
Trouble is, with so many tools plying their wares across iOS, Android, Windows and others, how on earth do you choose between them? Is it okay to use a free VPN, or should you pay? This is where our guide to the best VPNs of 2016 comes in.
VPNs: What to look for?
With such a huge variety of products and services of offer it's impossible to test and evaluate every service. So as well as our recommendations, I've listed below a number of key factors to consider if you find another that's cheaper and seems to offer more for your money.
The most important question is, since the VPN provider is the only party that knows both who you are and what you're doing online, do you trust them? How do you know if they're not going to sell your information onto the highest bidder? How can you tell if their security is up to scratch? How do you know that they won't be compelled to give up your data if the government comes calling?
First, is the company big enough? Does it have a community of happy and satisfied users? Does it respond to support requests promptly? You can find this out by having a dig around in online forums.
Next, look for VPNs that don't hold logs of your internet usage. If a VPN firm doesn't keep a record of what you've been doing, then that data can't be compromised or surrendered in the event of an official request. You'll normally find this information on a VPN company's “About us” page or buried in the terms and conditions.
Another important consideration is location. If a VPN company is based in a country that considers spying on its own citizens (whether directly or indirectly) an acceptable thing to do, then it may be a service you want to avoid.
Can you pay anonymously? Any VPN worth its salt will offer a variety of anonymous payment methods.
Performance and features
Another important consideration when it comes to choosing a VPN is its performance. A VPN provider may have many thousands of customers, all of which will be accessing the internet through the same selection of servers. Those connections will often be data-heavy - video streams, large downloads and so on - and the VPN provider also needs to encrypt those data streams, so you may see your internet connection speed take a hit.
Performance varies hugely depending on the time of day, how many people are using the VPN service at the time (contention) - even the weather outside, so it's difficult to test reliably. All you can do is to use the service yourself for a while to see if it's up to the mark.
You'll also want the most fully featured VPN you can afford. One of the main considerations will be cross-platform support. In other words, does your selected service support all the major device and OS types - Windows, OS X, iOS, Android and Linux? Most of us own multiple devices and you don't want to be paying extra just to use a VPN on your phone and laptop.
The location and the number of servers a VPN operates is another chief concern, after all, if you're interested in spoofing your location, you need servers located in the country you want to look like you're browsing from.
Other important features include support for torrent downloads and kill switch functionality. The former should be obvious: not all VPN providers allow torrent downloads, so if that's what you want one for, check first; the latter is a safety-net that monitors your internet connection for VPN dropouts (they do happen), shutting it down to prevent your own IP address from being exposed. This is called IP leaking.
Whatever you do, however, make sure that you try before you buy. Most VPN companies offer a free trial period so you can give the service a dry run before subscribing. You might find that, even though the features stack up, the performance isn't good enough, or that the service keeps switching itself on and off without you knowing about it.
And do bear in mind that there's no substitution for a paid VPN. Free VPNs are ten a penny, but usually involve some kind of compromise: that can be a feature restriction, a performance cap or a traffic limitation. Either way, if you really care about your privacy, it's worth paying for it.
Next: the best VPNs of 2016