Why you should use a VPN

Ian Paul ex­plains how to pro­tect your on­line pri­vacy as the gov­ern­ment steps up its on­line sur­veil­lance

PC Advisor - - CONTENTS -

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.

Se­condly, what are the ac­cept­able terms of use for your VPN provider? Thanks to the pop­u­lar­ity of VPNs with tor­rent users, per­mis­si­ble ac­tiv­ity on spe­cific VPNs can vary. Some com­pa­nies dis­al­low tor­rents com­pletely, some are to­tally fine with them, while oth­ers won’t stop tor­rents but of­fi­cially dis­al­low them. We aren’t here to ad­vise pi­rates, but any­one look­ing to use a VPN should un­der­stand what is and is not okay to do on their provider’s net­work.

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

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