With more and more people spending a large part of their lives online these days, privacy is becoming a concern for many users. We often send information in emails and in instant messaging (IM) chats which we would hate to be released onto the public domain. Unfortunately, public WiFi hotspots, internet cafes and even public libraries are vulnerable to breaches of security and theft of your internet traffic. Not to mention that different governments around the world often have laws which allow law enforcement agencies to monitor all of your transmitted web traffic.
A VPN for increased security
For the security and privacy conscious users out there, you don't need to live in a cave to avoid these potentially dangerous environments to be using the internet. You can use what is known as a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to securely route all of your internet traffic from your computer to its final destination. This VPN acts as a virtual tunnel for your data to privately pass through, encrypting every bit and byte along the way.
Using VPNs to access geo-centric resources
One of the added benefits of using such a VPN to route your internet traffic through, is that the VPN server, which creates the tunnel for you, will show any websites or services you visit the IP address of its own server. Where this comes in particularly handy, is when you are outside of the United Sates and trying to access an online service which either restricts its usage to US residents only, or is blocked by the country you are connecting from. ie, in China, the government's Great Firewall of China blocks access to popular US sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
Sometimes it may not be a country, but perhaps even your university's network will not allow you to access certain outside websites. As long as you are able to connect to your VPN, you will be able to bypass such restrictions.
Choosing a VPN provider
To fill the demand, there are more and more companies supplying Virtual Private Network services for a monthly fee. I have personal experience using HMA, StrongVPN and Witopia. I would also rank them in that order of quality. If you are looking to access a certain country's online services, all of the above vendors offer multiple geographically located VPN servers for you to connect to. You should not expect to pay more than $100 per year for such a service.
VPN speed issues
I believe the issues of speed when using a VPN are highly dependent on the VPN provider you choose. The method the company uses to “tunnel” your data and encrypt it from end to end, can add increased packet overhead to each transmission of data you make. On the other hand, at least HMA claims to compress some packets of data for you, which can even speed up transmissions more than if you were not using the VPN.
Geographically, you should expect some increased lag if you access your neighbor's computer via VPN rather than without. Though if you are mostly accessing websites in a location on the other side of the world, going through a VPN server closer to that location should speed things up for you in general. The reason for this is that the data you send and receive is usually passed between many different servers to reach you. When using a VPN, however, a more direct route is established.
VPN for a peace of mind
In summary, VPN's offer increased security, privacy and in some cases speed for all of your internet traffic. If you can put a value on your information and security, I'm sure that the cost of a VPN for a year is much less.