Why you should use a VPN
Ian Paul explains how to protect your online privacy as the government steps up its online surveillance
One of the most important skills any computer user should have is the ability to use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect their privacy. A VPN is typically a paid service that keeps your web browsing secure and private over public Wi-Fi hotspots. VPNs can also get past regional restrictions for video- and music-streaming sites and help you evade government censorship restrictions, though that last one is especially tricky.
The best way to think of a VPN is as a secure tunnel between your PC and destinations you visit on the internet. Your PC connects to a VPN server, which can be located in the United Kingdom or
a foreign country like the United States, France, Sweden or Thailand. Your web traffic then passes back and forth through that server. The end result is that as far as most websites are concerned, you’re browsing from that server’s geographical location, not your computer’s location.
We’ll get to the implications of a VPN’s location in a moment, but first, let’s get back to our secure tunnel example. Once you’re connected to the VPN and are ‘inside the tunnel’, it becomes very difficult for anyone else to spy on your web-browsing activity. The only people who will know what you’re up to are you, the VPN provider (usually an HTTPS connection can mitigate this), and the website you’re visiting.
When you’re on public Wi-Fi at an airport or café, that means hackers will have a harder time stealing your login credentials or redirecting your PC to a phony banking site. Your internet service provider (ISP), or anyone else trying to spy on you, will also have a near impossible time figuring out which websites you’re visiting.
On top of all that, you get the benefits of spoofing your location. If you’re in London, for example, and the VPN server is in the US, it will look to most websites that you’re browsing from there, not the UK.
This is why many regionally restricted websites and online services such as BBC’s iPlayer or Sling TV can be fooled by a VPN. We say ‘most’ services because some, most notably Netflix, are fighting against VPN use to prevent people from getting access to, say, the American version of Netflix when they’re really in Australia.
For the most part, however, if you’re visiting Belgium and connect to a US VPN server, you should get access to most American sites and services just as if you were sitting at a Starbucks in Chicago.
What a VPN can’t do
While VPNs are an important tool, they are far from foolproof. Let’s say you live in an oppressive country and want to evade censorship in order to access the
unrestricted web. A VPN would have limited use. If you’re trying to evade government restrictions and access sites such as Facebook and Twitter, a VPN might be useful. Even then, you’d have to be somewhat dependent on the government’s willingness to look the other way.
Anything more serious than that, such as mission-critical anonymity, is far more difficult to achieve, even with a VPN. Privacy against passive surveillance? No problem. Protection against an active and hostile government? Probably not.
The problem with anonymity is there are so many issues to consider – most of which are beyond the scope of this article. Has the government surreptitiously installed malware on your PC in order to monitor your activity, for example? Does the VPN you want to use have any issues with data leakage or weak encryption that could expose your web browsing? How much information does your VPN provider log about your activity, and would that information be accessible to the government? Are you using an anonymous identity online on a PC that you never use in conjunction with your actual identity?
Anonymity online is a very difficult goal to achieve. If, however, you are trying to remain private from prying eyes or evade NSA-style bulk data collection as a matter of principle, a reputable VPN will probably be good enough. Beyond surveillance, a VPN also won’t do much to keep advertisers from tracking you online. Remember that the website you visit is aware of what you do on its site and that applies equally to advertisers serving ads on that site.
To prevent online tracking by advertisers and websites you’ll still need browser add-ons such as Ghostery, Privacy Badger, and HTTPS Everywhere.
You get the benefits of spoofing your location. If you’re in London, for example, and the VPN server is in the US, it will look to most sites that you’re browsing from there, not the UK
How to choose a VPN provider
There was a time when using a VPN required users to know about the built-in VPN client for Windows or universal open-source solutions such as OpenVPN. Nowadays, however, nearly every VPN provider has their own one-click client that gets you up and running in seconds. There are usually mobile apps as well to keep your Android or iOS device secure over public Wi-Fi.
Of course that brings up another problem. Since there are so many services to choose from, how can you tell which ones are worth using, and what are the criteria to judge them by?
First, let’s get the big question out of the way. The bad news for anyone used to free services is that it pays to pay when it comes to a VPN. There are tons of free options from reputable companies, but these are usually a poor substitute for the paid options. Free services usually allow a limited amount of bandwidth usage per month or offer a slower service. Tunnel Bear, for example, offers just 500MB of free bandwidth per month, while CyberGhost offers a free service that is significantly slower than its paid service.
Then there are the free VPNs that use an ad-supported model, which in our experience aren’t worth using at all. Plus, free VPNs are usually anything but; in lieu of payment they may be harvesting your data (in anonymised form, of course) and selling it as ‘marketing insights’ to advertisers. The good news is VPNs aren’t expensive. You can usually pay as little as £4 per month for VPN coverage.
We won’t get into specific VPN service recommendations in this article: for that, see tinyurl.com/j3k977m. Instead, here are some issues to consider when shopping around for a VPN provider.
First, what kind of logging does your VPN provider do? In other words, what information do they keep about your VPN sessions and how long is it kept? Are they recording the IP addresses you use, the websites you visit, the amount of bandwidth used, or any other key details?
All VPNs have to do some kind of logging, but there are VPNs that collect as little data as possible and others that aren’t so minimalist. On top of that, some services discard their logs in a matter of hours or days, while other companies hold onto them for months at a time. How much privacy you expect from your VPN-based browsing will greatly influence how long you can stand having your provider maintain your activity logs – and what those logs contain.
Finally, does the VPN provider offer their own application that you can download and install? Unless you’re a power user who wants to mess with OpenVPN, a customised VPN program is really the way to go. It’s simple to use and doesn’t require any great technical knowledge or the need to adjust any significant settings.
Using a VPN
You’ve done your due diligence, checked out your VPN’s logging policies, and found a service with a great price and a customised application. Now, for the easy part: connecting to the VPN. Here’s a look at a few examples of VPN desktop applications.
TunnelBear, for example, has a very simple interface – if a little skeuomorphic. All you need to do is select the country you want to be virtually present in, click the dial to the On position, and wait for a connection-confirmation message.
SaferVPN works similarly. From the lefthand side you select the country you’d like to use – the more common choices such as the UK, the US and Germany are at the top. Once that’s done, hit the Connect button and wait for the confirmation message.
HMA Pro’s interface is slightly more complicated, but it’s easy to understand. To select your desired virtual location, click the Location Mode tab, then the location name, and choose your preferred location from the list. Once that’s done, click the slider button
Free VPNs are usually anything but; in lieu of payment they may be harvesting your data (in anonymised form, of course) and selling it as ‘marketing insights’ to advertisers
that says Disconnected. Once it flips to Connected, you’re ready to roll.
There are numerous VPN services out there, and they all have different interfaces; but they are all similar enough that if you can successfully use one, you’ll be able to use the others.
That’s all there is to using a VPN. The hard part is figuring out which service to use. Once that’s done, connecting to a VPN for added privacy or to stream your favourite TV shows while abroad is just a click away.
A VPN service provider such as HideMyAss can protect your privacy by ensuring your web connection is encrypted
Everybody loves free services; but when you want to use a VPN, the free version usually isn’t the best deal
A VPN is like a secure tunnel for web traffic
With SaferVPN, choose the country you wish to have a virtual presence in
TunnelBear is one of our favourite VPNs, but there are many good choices