This Is When You'll Want a VPN

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If you listen to cybersecurity experts, they'll tell you there's no length too far to go for protecting your online data. Be suspicious of everything, and take every opportunity to mask your digital footprint. There may be such a thing as overkill, though, even when it comes to privacy.

The new market for virtual private networks, or VPNs, is a perfect exemplar. These programs add an extra layer of encryption to your internet connection, which is especially important if you're using public wi-fi, like at a coffee shop. The podcast So, Bob just released a brief "minisode" looking into the matter, with one listener wondering if VPNs really deliver and if they're worth the cost. Producer Kelly Kolff brought the question to co-host Bob Sullivan, and the answer is: It depends.

There are two factors at work here. First, if you do work that really requires the kind of insulation and privacy a good VPN provides, your employer should already provide it, and you're very unlikely to do that work on or near an unsecured wi-fi network. Second, the kind of data theft that VPNs mostly protect against — someone in a café stealing your login credentials as you type or send them — is are and requires the thief to stay close to you, which is inconvenient for the thief. Free VPNs are also a gamble, privacy-wise, and all VPNs will slow down your transmissions.

Sullivan does have one good piece of advice for the security-minded among us: Invest in a good password manager. It does most of the work you think a VPN will; listen to the full So, Bob minisode to learn more.