How to use a VPN to protect your internet privacy

A virtual private network can go a long way to make sure that neither your ISP, nor anyone else, can snoop on what you do on the internet.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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Worried about your ISP snooping on you? Is someone on your coffee shop's Wi-Fi looking your network shoulder? Or, is Joe A Hacker bugging your internet? A virtual private network (VPN) can help protect your privacy.

See also: What is a VPN and why do you need one? 

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.

Of course, if you do that, your employer may be watching your traffic, so that's not ideal if privacy matters a lot to you. And, even corporate VPNs, such as Cisco's Adaptive Security Appliance (ASA), have been known to have serious security bugs.

See also: The best VPN services of 2022

VPN services

Most people turn to a VPN service for online privacy. These companies enable you to create a VPN between your gadgets and their internet destinations. 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.

VPN programs tend to be extremely simple to show up. It shouldn't take you more than a few minutes to set one up.

There's one fundamental concern with VPN services: Can you trust them not to track you?

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Some VPNs keep 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.

Then, there are cases like Facebook with its Onavo VPN. This VPN, which is marketed on Facebook as "Protect" for Android and iPhone users, spies on you. When you install it you give it permission to share data about what you do on your phone with Facebook. That's not exactly what most people want from a "privacy" service.

VPN service companies are also as vulnerable to security hacks as anyone else. Recently, a security problem with the popular Hotspot Shield service enabled hackers to find out where you were entering their VPN. Armed with that, it wouldn't take long for someone to track you down.

You should also know before subscribing to a VPN service that your internet speed will decline. That's because you're going to be sharing the VPN's broadband connection with other users. In addition, every internet connection to and from you must go first through the VPN provider before it gets to you. As always, an internet connection is only as fast as its slowest link.

Almost all VPN services require you to install an application on each of your devices. Many, but not all, also support Android and iOS, so you can secure your mobile traffic.

See also: The best mobile VPNs

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 Hotspot Shield, do this by placing ads in your stream. Others, like TunnelBear, will give you a free tunnel for a limited amount of traffic. At 500 Megabytes of bandwidth per month that's really only enough for email, but that may be all you need to protect.

5 things you should know about VPNs

Still, if privacy is job one, you should be extra cautious about a free VPN. As Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (TANSTAAFL).

As for the paid services, you want one with lots of bandwidth and multiple sites. How do you find out? By trying them out.

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.

That said, I've been using VPNs for over a decade and I've used many of them. The ones that have worked best for me are Banana VPN, NordVPN, Private Internet Access VPN, StrongVPN, and ZenMate.

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.

Beyond VPNs

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. Generally speaking, given a choice between a web proxy and a VPN, I'm using the VPN every time.

The 10 step guide to using Tor to protect your privacy

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 won't 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. Now that the FCC has removed net neutrality, we can only expect less privacy from your ISP.

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.

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