Take a step back and consider how much of your life is transferred through the inherently insecure Internet. Do you feel a creeping sense of fear? That's perfectly reasonable considering the forces that are against your privacy. One of the best ways to protect your data is to use a virtual private network (VPN) that also provides some control over how you are identified online.
What is a VPN and how does it work?
Simply put, a VPN creates a virtual encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server operated by a VPN service. All Internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, protecting your data from prying eyes. Your computer may seem to have the IP address of the VPN server to mask your identity and location.
To understand the value of a VPN, it helps to some specific scenarios in which a VPN could be used. Consider the public Wi-Fi network, eg. In a café or airport. Usually you can connect without a second thought. But do you know who can watch the traffic in this network? Can you even be sure that the Wi-Fi network is real, or could it be operated by a thief questioning your personal information? Think about passwords, bank details, credit card numbers, and simple private information that you submit each time you access online.
When you connect to the same public Wi-Fi network over a VPN, you can be confident that nobody will assume that you can intercept your data – neither other users who are looking for victims, nor those Operator of the network itself. This last point is particularly important and everyone should keep in mind that it is very difficult to say whether a Wi-Fi network is what it seems. Just because it's called Starbucks_WiFi does not mean that it's actually owned by a well-known coffee shop dealer.
Another example that shows the value of VPNs is the use of these services to access blocked websites. Some governments have decided that it is in their best interests to block certain websites for all members of the public. With a VPN, these people can securely tunnel their web traffic to another country with more advanced policies and access sites that would otherwise be blocked. And because VPNs encrypt your traffic, they protect the identity of people connecting to the open Internet in this way.
Typically, VPN clients are the same for both Windows and Mac OS. However, this is not always the case and I've found significant performance differences depending on the platform. I've split reviews of Mac VPN applications if you're more concerned with fruit than windows. You can skip client apps altogether and connect to the VPN service by simply using your computer's network control. However, you still need to sign in with a VPN service.
The situation is a bit bleaker for mobile devices. Most companies offer VPN apps for Android and iOS, which is great because we use these devices to constantly make Wi-Fi connections. However, VPNs do not always play well with cellular connections. However, the interception of mobile phone data requires considerable effort, although law enforcement or intelligence agencies may find it easier to access that data or metadata through connections with mobile operators or through the use of specialized equipment.
While VPN apps The look and feel are pretty much the same regardless of the mobile platform. iPhone VPNs often use different VPN protocols than their Android counterparts. However, this is mostly okay.
Are you using a less common operating system? That does not necessarily protect you online. People who spy on network traffic do not care which computer they come from. Accordingly, we provide a summary of the best VPNs for Linux and tips for setting up a VPN on your Chromebook.
Among the enemies of freedom of expression and privacy, there are two groups of letters that should be particularly concerned: the NSA and your ISP.
Through years of reporting and the leaks from Snowden, we now know that the surveillance apparatus of the NSA is enormous. At some point in time, the agency had the ability to intercept and analyze almost any transmission sent over the Internet. There are breathtaking stories about secret spaces in hubs of data infrastructures, from which the agency had direct access to the vibrant heart of the Internet. With a VPN you can be sure that your data is encrypted and less directly traceable to you. Given the mass surveillance efforts of the NSA and others, having more ways to encrypt your data is a good thing.
That does not mean that a VPN makes you invisible to spies or law enforcement agencies. Your traffic could be intercepted in several ways. A VPN makes it harder to correlate online activity with you, and adds an encryption level while driving your online traffic. A determined, well-funded opponent who has chosen you to monitor will probably find a way. However, with VPNs and the widespread adoption of HTTPS, mass surveillance is much more difficult as in the past.
Your ISP may already be involved in some of these espionage actions, but there are even more recent concerns. The FCC has taken back the rules of the Obama era to protect net neutrality, allowing ISPs to benefit from your data. The ISPs wanted a piece of this big-data monetization pie that drives the growth of companies like Facebook and Google. These companies are able to collect large amounts of information about users and then use them to advertise or even sell that information to other companies. ISPs now have the green light to bundle and sell anonymous user data.
While it's true that companies like Google and Facebook make money from your behavior, you're not forced to use these services. If you've suddenly decided to stop using Facebook, you may miss cute pet pictures and political slogans from your friends and family, but you could still live a decent, maybe better, life. You can even bypass the Google o sphere altogether by using the privacy-oriented DuckDuckGo for your web search and deleting Google-supported Chrome for non-profit Firefox.
You do not have the same option when it comes to your ISP who controls the gate of your home to the entire Internet. While there are alternatives to Google and Facebook, most Americans have few ISP alternatives at home. In some areas, there is only an ISP that offers wired internet access. This makes the recent changes that allow ISPs to sell data from their customers all the more worrying. It is one thing to choose a dodgy system, it is another to have no choice in the matter.
"ISPs are able to see a lot of what they do online, and they have to be somehow, because they transport all the traffic," explains Jeremy Gillula, senior technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF ). "Unfortunately, this means that preventing ISPs from tracking online is much more difficult than preventing third-party tracking, so you can not just install [the EFF’s privacy-minded browser add-on] Privacy Badger or browse in Incognito or Private mode."
See how we test VPNs
What a VPN does not
We should note that there are several ways to track your behavior online. Even with a VPN, cookies such as web services (Amazon, Google, Facebook) and so on allow you to track your internet usage even after you leave their websites (here's a handy guide to cookies in your browser.)
VPNs only do so much to anonymize your online activities. If you really want to surf the web anonymously and access the dark web to boot, you want to use Tor. Unlike a VPN, Tor bundles your traffic across multiple server nodes, making tracking much harder. It is also managed by a nonprofit organization and distributed free of charge. For security reasons, some VPN services even connect to Tor via VPN.
It's worth noting that most VPN services are not philanthropic organizations that work for the general public. While many are involved in progressive causes, they are all still profit-oriented. This means they have to pay their own bills and respond to law enforcement subpoenas and arrest warrants. You must also abide by the laws of the country in which you officially stay.
It's easy to find the perfect, magical tool that protects you from all sorts of threats. But the honest truth is, if someone specifically addresses you and is ready to push the effort, he will reach you. A VPN can be disabled by malware on your device, or by analyzing the traffic patterns to correlate the activity on your computer with the activity on the VPN server. However, using security tools like a VPN ensures that they are not an easy target or are being monitored by mass surveillance.
The complications of private life
We reject the view that safety and comfort are inevitably incompatible. However, there are some notable complications that result from using a VPN. These are not deal breakers, but they require consideration.
Chromecast and other streaming protocols are sending data over your local area network. However, this is a problem if you are using a VPN. These devices search for streaming data from phones and computers on the same network, not from a remote VPN server. Similarly, smart home devices can capture a lot of data about you and your home that you would rather not have intercepted. Unfortunately, these devices can not run VPNs. The solution to both problems is to increase security by installing a VPN on your router. This encrypts data when you leave your secure home network for the wild web. Information sent on your network is available and all smart devices connected to your network have a secure connection.
Do you like Netflix? That's a pity, because Netflix hates VPNs. The problem is that Netflix in England differs from Netflix in the US, which is different from Netflix in Australia and so on. Just because you can watch your favorite show in one country does not mean that you can see it in another. The company has a complex global network of regional licensing agreements and a genuine interest in ensuring that people do not circumvent the resulting restrictions.
To ensure that you can not access streaming content that is not licensed for your region, Netflix blocks most VPNs. However, some VPN services are working hard to keep their customers streaming movies and TV shows. It's a cat-and-mouse game, and a VPN that works today with Netflix might not work tomorrow.
Similarly, many VPN companies do not have to worry about the legal consequences of their services being downloaded via BitTorrent. Of course, BitTorrent is not inherently illegal, but is often used to misuse copyrighted material. Very few VPN companies prohibit BitTorrenting on their servers, while others restrict use to certain servers.
Another important problem with VPNs is the speed. In general, using a VPN will increase latency (or ping) and reduce the speed with which you upload or download data. It's very hard to tell which VPN has the least impact on your browsing, but extensive testing can give you an idea of which service is the fastest VPN.
While download speeds are one thing, gamers have special concerns when it comes to internet connections. There are some gaming VPNs, but there are only a few. However, some VPNs offer split-tunneling, which routes the traffic of some applications outside the VPN. It is less secure but has less impact on latency.
Protect yourself with a VPN
When the Internet was first put together, there was not much security or privacy thought. Initially, it was just a few shared computers in research facilities, and computing power was so limited that encryption could have made things extremely difficult. If anything, the focus was on openness, not defense.
Today, most people have multiple devices that connect to the Internet and are much more powerful than the early days top computers. However, the internet has not made any significant improvements. Keep in mind that HTTPS has only been widely used in recent years.
This means that it is unfortunately up to the individual to protect himself. Antivirus apps and password managers make a significant contribution to making you more secure. However, a VPN is a unique, powerful tool that you should definitely use in your personal security toolkit, especially in today's networked world. Whether you opt for a free service or even go all-in with an encrypted router to encrypt your Internet traffic is crucial.