Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are great for protecting your internet privacy, but they're not perfect. Some VPNs don't take good care of your "private" information. Mobile VPNs face all these issues and more.
Here are the VPN basics: They use 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 computer and a VPN server. While your traffic is in this tunnel, no one can see where you're going or what you're doing.
But you can't trust all VPN providers. Some fake VPNs snoop on your traffic, while others don't always encrypt your web traffic. Others will also log your activities, and finally, some use their own domain name servers. If a VPN uses your DNS, then your ISP can still see where you're going.
The best commercial VPN providers, such as NordVPN, Private Internet Access, and TorGuard, are trustworthy. But, if you really want to lock down your traffic, you need to run your VPN server, such as the open-source OpenVPN or SoftEther VPN or commercial programs like Check Point Endpoint, Cisco AnyConnect, and Microsoft Remote Access Gateway.
Just any old VPN software won't work on your smartphone or tablet. That's because conventional VPNs aren't optimized for mobile communication problems such as coverage gaps, inter-network roaming, bandwidth, battery life, and limited memory and processing power.
For example, if you move from Wi-Fi to 4G or back again, or just from one 4G network to another, it's not uncommon to lose the VPN connection. Some VPN programs then get caught in endless loops of trying, and failing, to re-secure the connection. In such cases, your only choice will be to turn off your network and turn it back on again. If you run into this or similar problems constantly, it's time to try another VPN program and/or provider.
In addition, just like ordinary VPNs, some mobile VPN vendors do a sub-par job of protecting your data. Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) recently found 18 percent of 283 tested Android VPNs didn't encrypt traffic in their tunnels. Worse still, "75 percent of them use third-party tracking libraries and 82 percent request permissions to access sensitive resources including user accounts and text messages."
In particular, CSIRO researchers found you can't trust "free" VPN services. Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told Wired, "The economics didn't make much sense, because when you start looking at these applications, most of them are free, but maintaining online infrastructure is actually very expensive."
Apple's iPhone users face the same problems. In addition, Apple makes it harder for VPN providers to support OpenVPN, so relatively few offer OpenVPN services.
Just because a VPN provider charges you doesn't mean that they're good. Even VPN companies with sound, honest business plans may not have good, solid security technology.
When it comes to mobile VPNs, you must look very carefully at the providers' track record. In particular, you want a VPN that supports at least 128-bit encryption and anonymous DNS servers, as well as one that doesn't log your connections.
Here are five of the best mobile VPN services.
F-Secure Freedome VPN: This is one of the few VPNs CSIRO mentioned with approval. Besides providing secure VPN, it also includes built-in third-party ads and trackers blocking functionality. F-Secure is available for both Android and iOS. It's unlimited data plan starts at $49.99 a year for up to three devices.
NordVPN: Besides being a great PC VPN, NordVPN does well for both Android and iOS devices. Unlike many Apple-approved VPNs, NordVPN supports OpenVPN services. This is a must if you're running your own OpenVPN servers. Its annual plan enables you to run six devices at a time for $69 a year.
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited: This program boasts it has no ads, no tracking, and no logs. Its client app works well on Android and iOS. VPN Unlimited lets you connect up to five devices at the same time for $39.99 a year. It also offers a lifetime plan for $449.99 (currently on sale for $149.99).
Private Internet Access: With thousands of VPN servers scattered across the globe, Private Internet Access offers Android and iOS users the widest choice of geographical locations of any VPN. This service costs $39.95 annually for up to five devices simultaneously.
TorGuard: Despite its name, TorGuard is not connected to the anonymous internet Tor Project. Instead, it refers to the fact that the Android and iOS apps support BitTorrent torrents. TorGuard, however, keeps no logs whatsoever. It also supports pretty much all VPN protocols. The program runs $59.99 per year for five clients.
Even if privacy isn't a top priority for you, I urge you to get a VPN for your smartphone or tablet. Unlike your home PC, you will be using public Wi-Fi access points from time to time -- whether it's at a restaurant, airport, or hotel. None of these are particularly trustworthy, and those that don't even require a password are wide-open for attackers. A mobile VPN isn't just a good idea, it's a necessity.
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