Worried about your ISP? Is someone on your coffee shop's Wi-Fi? Or is Joe A Hacker bugging your internet? A virtual private network (VPN) can help protect your privacy.
A VPN uses encryption technologies, such as IP security (IPSec), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)/IPSec, and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS), to create a virtual encrypted "tunnel" between your device and a VPN server. While your traffic is in this tunnel between you and a VPN server, no one can see where you're going or what you're doing.
Besides protecting your privacy, VPN services are also commonly used for BitTorrent and other Peer-to-Peer (P2P) traffic since many ISPs frown on file-sharing. People also use VPNs to watch streaming video services, such as Netflix and Hulu, in areas where they aren't legally available. In recent years, the streaming services have taken steps to prevent VPNs from carrying their traffic.
While you can set up your own VPN server, such as OpenVPN on Ubuntu, that's too much work for most people. Your employer may offer VPN services for remote users; if so, ask if you can use it from home.
For most people the answer is to use a VPN service. These companies enable you to create a VPN between your gadgets and their internet connection. Once your connection is on the other side of their VPN server, your traffic emerges without signs of who you are or where you're connecting from.
There's one fundamental concern with VPN services: Can you trust them not to track you? Some VPNs keep their own records of where you go on the net. If privacy is a real concern for you, check your VPN's terms and policies to see if they keep logs of your online activities. If they do, look for another VPN.
Some VPNs are far shadier than just logging your visits. In 2015, the free VPN service Hola was found to be selling its users' bandwidth to its Luminati service's paying customers.
You should also know before subscribing to a VPN service that you can be almost certain your internet speed will decline. That's because you're going to be sharing the VPN's broadband connection with other users. As always, an internet connection is only as fast as its slowest link.
The great majority of VPN services require you to install an application on your device. Many, but not all of them, also support Android and iOS, so you can secure your mobile traffic.
Most VPN services charge for their services. After all, a VPN provider must, at a bare minimum, pay for its own network equipment and broadband. Nonetheless, there are some decent free VPN services.
Some, such as Spotflux and Hotspot Shield, do this by placing ads in your stream. Others, including Steganos Online Shield and TunnelBear, will give you a free tunnel for a limited amount of traffic. These two offer 500 Megabytes of bandwidth per month. Of the free services, I prefer Spotflux, but if you have minimal bandwidth needs, TunnelBear is also worthwhile.
As for the paid services, what you want is one with lots of bandwidth and multiple sites. Before subscribing to any of these services, try them out first. Many of them offer free trials, and it's worth taking them up on this. VPN performance varies wildly -- not just from company to company but from place to place. If you live near a VPN endpoint that's constantly overloaded you won't be happy, even if your brother across the country is getting great performance with the same VPN service.
Their prices vary. Generally speaking, the longer term you sign up for, such as a year paid in advance, the cheaper the subscription fee. This typically drops the price below $10 a month. But, as I mentioned, try the service first before getting locked into a long-term contract.
Installing a VPN tends to be mindlessly simple. The Opera web browser even comes with a built-in VPN these days.
There are also other services that look like VPNs, one of which is free web proxies. A web proxy is a server that acts as a middleman between you and and a website. It sounds good, but about 75 percent of all free web proxies have recently been shown to be untrustworthy. If you're already using one and want to know if it's OK, you can test it with ProxyCheck.
Another popular privacy solution is Tor. This is a software and network pairing that hides your identity by moving your traffic across different Tor servers, and encrypting that traffic. However, there's every reason to believe that Tor isn't as secure as its reputation. The Justice Department recently dropped a case because it didn't want to reveal how it had cracked Tor.
Your ISP isn't going to be cracking your Tor connection. For most people the real problem with Tor is that its connections tend to be very slow.
Do you really need to worry about any of this? I think you do. Sure, the major ISPs claim they're not going to spy on you, but I don't believe them. Even before the government decided to let the ISPs sell your browsing history, the big ISPs have had a track record of playing fast and loose with your privacy.
For most people, the best internet privacy solution is a good, fast VPN provider you can trust. Give the ones I suggested a try. I'm sure you'll find one you like.
- Opera builds free VPN into browser, gives users a real reason to switch browsers
- Free, unlimited, and secure VPN for Google Chrome
- Getting caught using a VPN in the UAE will cost you over $500,000