If you’re a regular internet user – like most of us are – and you’ve been following the news, you will have heard the term “VPN” thrown around quite a bit lately. Whether it’s privacy experts warning us that we should use them to keep our information secure, or people suggesting a VPN as a way to get around the annoyance of region-restricted content, the VPN has never had as high a profile as it does now. But what exactly is a VPN? Why do you want one, and what can it do for you?
The Most Popular Boring Thing on the Internet
If you’d come across an article or forum post about VPNs a few years ago, you would have been likely to fall asleep while reading it. VPNs aren’t new, nor are they especially easy to define a use for – in the past they’ve largely been used by businesses to let employees connect to their networks from home. It’s events of more recent times that have given the idea of using a VPN such a high profile – not just for security of personal information or for anonymity, but also for many other situations when you just want to appear to be connecting from somewhere you’re not.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and the name neatly sums up what it does. It creates a private network that nobody else can access, over which all your internet-connected devices can send and receive data. The “virtual” part is because unlike normal networks, which have real-world wires and antennas and the like, this “virtual” network is created by software and can only be “seen” by you.
Put simply, a VPN creates what’s called a “tunnel” between your devices and a computer in another place – it can be across town, across Australia or in an entirely different country. Once you’re connected to the internet through this tunnel, everything you do online looks, to the rest of the internet, like you’re located where that remote computer is. And even better, all the stuff you send and receive through the tunnel is scrambled so only you and the computer at the other end can decipher it.
And all that sounds really, really boring – until you start to realise what the advantages of having access to a VPN are.
Why Use a VPN?
If you’re like most people that use the internet every day, you probably assume that you’re more or less anonymous unless you choose to tell people who you are. But that’s far from being the case, and fixing that is one of the main reasons that people choose to use a VPN – and why experts recommend that you do, too.
It can’t be stressed enough – everything you do online leaves a trace, and while communications can be encrypted to prevent others reading them, that’s not a cure-all. Every time you browse to a website, for example, you create a log file entry at your ISP that now, under recently passed federal laws, has to be kept for a full two years and can be accessed by a range of agencies. Even if, like most people, your browsing habits are completely ordinary, the metadata can be interpreted to tell a different story, and that’s something that gets privacy advocates worried.
Using a VPN stymies this metadata retention – all that’s logged is your connection to your VPN provider. Logs of the sites you visit can, though, be kept by the VPN provider, so you’ll want to choose one with a solid reputation for privacy or a “no logs” policy.
Worry about metadata retention isn’t the only reason to want privacy online, of course. You could be fond of downloading files using Bittorrent, raising red flags with the copyright police regardless of whether or not you’re doing anything wrong (torrents are frequently used for perfectly legal and legitimate downloads). Connecting through a VPN (if your VPN provider supports it) can solve this.
There’s nothing worse than coming across a link to a video or website that you click only to be told it’s “not available in your country”. Content providers all over the world use what’s called “geolocation” to figure out where on the planet you are, and block you from using their stuff. But a VPN can solve this. How? Well, quite simply you can choose from a list of destinations where your VPN connection will “exit”. In other words, if you choose to exit in California, the sites and services you visit will see you as a genuine Californian internet user and you’ll be able to view the otherwise blocked content. This works for streaming services as well, though Netflix in particular is in a constant game of cat and mouse with VPN providers trying to identify and block them.
Then there’s those times you want to buy something online, and you’re greeted with the news that the product you want is not available because you live in Australia – or, alternatively, it’s priced much higher for you just because of the bit of the planet you happen to live on. While it won’t solve the shipping problem with physical goods (there are shipping services for that, though) a VPN can persuade that online store that you’re right there in their country where the cheap prices live.
This one’s probably the example of a situation where you really, REALLY should be using a VPN. If you connect to publicly accessible Wi-Fi in any way at any time, like the free street Wi-Fi provided by city councils or in restaurants or train stations, you need to be aware that by their very nature, those connections are not secure. The data you send and receive over that public Wi-Fi connection can be monitored and captured by someone within radio distance. That’s why you’re often reminded to never do your online banking on public Wi-Fi, and never access sites that ask for your password in plain text. Even so, the last thing you want is some random person snaffling your email address, birth date and other details as you browse – or worse, doing what’s called a “man in the middle” attack, posing as a site you visit to try to get you to enter your login details.
With a VPN active on your laptop or even your mobile phone, everything you send and receive will be encrypted so only you can access it. It’s not an iron-clad guarantee of 100% safety – to be safe, you should always only use your own trusted Wi-Fi or your mobile’s 4G data – but it makes for solid peace of mind.
What About Free VPNs? Worth It?
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say, and anyone who knows how the likes of Facebook and Google make their money will know that “free” always comes with some sort of price tag, even if the price is your personal data. A VPN service costs money to implement and has ongoing operating costs – someone has to pay for all those servers around the world that you can tunnel to – and if you’re paying a sum total of nothing for the service then you have to ask… who pays them? There’s no advantage in using a VPN if the security of it is compromised by the need to make a quick buck.
One example that was very popular for a while is “Hola Unblocker”. Distributed as a web browser plug-in, Hola let you choose a country to appear as being from, just like a real VPN. However, behind the scenes, Hola was making your computer available to paying clients of their other company – clients who could use your machine to transmit anything, including malicious or illegal data.
The best option for free VPN use is the limited-access mode of some of the better-known ones. The well-liked and easy-to-use TunnelBear, for example, lets you use their service for free to the tune of 500MB of data per month – and they do it in the hope you’ll pay for their premium service.
The Top Five VPN Providers
Choosing a VPN provider that works for you is very much a case of “try it and see” – your level of skill at setting one up may vary, for example, so you might prefer a simple user interface over complex configuration. You may have specific needs like fast torrenting, streaming video, or specific destination countries. And of course, price comes into it. Almost all good VPNs offer either a free trial or a low-cost single-month subscription so you can try them out, and that’s the way to go – don’t sign up for a year or two until you’re sure it’s a VPN service that works the way you want it to.
Private Internet Access (PIA)
A VPN that’s been around for a long time and has won itself a lot of fans, PIA has several key advantages. It’s incredibly cheap (as low as $2.91 USD per month), it’s easy to set up and use, it has a ludicrous number of servers around the world (over 3000 of them) and they state they do not keep log files.
The cute cartoon bears that are this VPN’s mascot give away the fact that this is a VPN aimed at the novice user – and that’s a good thing, as you can be up and running in no time with no opportunity to make a mistake and end up less secure than you think. As mentioned above, they have a fully functional free option so you can try the service out without paying a cent.
With raw speed as their main selling point and privacy high on the list (they’re based in a country with no data retention laws and they keep no logs) this one comes highly recommended for those who want to stream video or download files at high speed no matter what country you’re connecting to.
Not to be outdone on the number of global server connection points users have access to, the highly respected NordVPN boasts over five thousand global servers, fast speeds and an easy to understand interface. It’s not the cheapest, but it makes up for that in security and scope.
Norton Secure VPN
If you’re one of the vast number of people that already subscribe to antivirus veteran Norton’s Internet Security package, you already have this VPN at your disposal; if not, you can subscribe to it as a standalone service for $60, $70 or $80 per year for one, three or five devices respectively. With the usual Norton polish across its interface and a strong emphasis on Wi-Fi privacy, this is one for everyday computer users who want things simple but secure.
One Last Thing…
Don’t confuse DNS proxy services (or “smart DNS”) used for accessing overseas streaming services such as UnblockUS and Getflix with VPNs. They’re often referred to as such, but these are actually clever workarounds that don’t encrypt or protect your data at all (Getflix does offer a true VPN with their service at no extra cost, but it’s glacially slow and highly involved to set up – still, it’s a free extra!).
If you want the peace of mind that comes with knowing your internet activity can only be seen by you and the intended destination, it’s a full-fledged VPN that you want and, as you can see above, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to get access to one that’ll serve you well.