The Internet is becoming an ever more restricted, ever less private place. The Snowden leaks and other more recent events have demonstrated that governments are interested in our personal data, we have all long known that corporations have sought an end to privacy protections so that they can monetize our browsing habits and it looks like they have finally succeeded. Most recently, the Republican dominated senate voted to allow ISPs to sell consumer data without prior consent or knowledge.
VPNs are often touted as an invaluable tool that you can use to secure yourself online and protect your web-traffic from being snooped on. They are an essential part of protecting yourself online and to understand why you need to understand what a VPN is.
What is a VPN?
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a group of computers, or discrete networks, networked together over a public network, or in other words, the Internet. If you have ever worked remotely from home or had to access a computer in another office then you have done so using a VPN.
VPNs are great because they allow you to access network resources that are not on your local network and they can be used to secure and encrypt communications when using an untrusted public network, such as the local Macdonald’s wi-fi.
To use your VPN you would generally launch a VPN client on your computer or phone, enter your log in credentials and then your computer will exchange keys with a remote server. Once your computer and the server have verified each other your Internet communication can be considered secure from any eavesdropping.
Once your VPN is connected to this server, all communications appear to be originating from that server which make it difficult to trace the traffic back to you personally. This is also why you can use a VPN to make it look like you are browsing from a foreign country.
Okay, that makes sense, so why should I use one?
There are a number of reasons you might want to use a VPN. They’re useful to pretty much anyone simply because they shield your traffic from any unwanted eyes and allow you to protect your data. I would really recommend using a secure one to protect yourself online, especially on public wi-fi networks. That being said, there are a number of specific reasons that you might want a VPN.
You might want to access resources in another country. VPNs are a great way to help level out the geographical divide. Perhaps you are a British emigrant who wants to be able to watch BBC Iplayer abroad, or maybe you are sick of the poor Netflix selection in your country. Whatever your reason, a good VPN provider will give you a number of locations to choose from, allowing you to “unblock” the web.
Another reason many people choose to use a VPN is to protect their privacy and security. Whether you live in a country where your web traffic is heavily monitored by the authorities, or whether you simply prefer to be safe rather than sorry, a VPN is a brilliant way to keep your private browsing history private.
Okay, so VPNs are useful, how do I choose one?
Well, there are a number of criteria that you should look at when choosing a VPN:
Number of exit locations
exit locations are an important factor for most users. This is basically where their servers are physically located. So, if you want your traffic to look like it is from the UK then you would want your exit location to be from the UK. This is especially important if you want to use your VPN to watch TV from another country.
The biggest security risk in any VPN service is the provider itself. While your data is protected from any external snooping, it has to go through your provider’s servers, meaning that they are the only ones with access to your data. If you are concerned about your privacy then you need to make absolutely sure that you know your providers logging policies. If they don’t log anything then they have nothing to hand over to the authorities regardless of where they are located. Many providers do log user traffic and can be compelled to hand those logs over to the authorities on request, some even sell that information onto third parties. It really pays to know exactly what data your provider keeps and how they use it.
If you think about it, you probably use your phone a lot more for general web surfing than your computer anyway and it is likely significantly less well protected. So choosing a service that offers protection for your mobile should be a big factor in who you choose, most paid VPNs worth their salt have a mobile app and some free ones do as well.
While some VPNs are no thrills affairs many offer extra features to help you keep yourself safer online. This is especially important you want to pay for your VPN service. VPNs aren’t a magic bullet so some providers package in software that help you identify trojans and spyware to help keep you safe online.
So, should I pay for a VPN or not then?
Well, it really depends upon what you need it for. If you just want to browse the web and access content from other countries then a free one should suit your needs just fine and there are plenty of good ones out there. Concerned about your privacy or security? Then a paid VPN is probably the best route to go down, though a couple of free ones might meet your needs.
If you do opt for a free VPN, keep in mind that nothing is truly free and many support themselves through advertising and they might well use your browsing data to more effectively target ads within the service. Many free VPNs also have data limits, making them unsuitable for beefing up your security. Do your research before using a free one and make sure that you know how they make their money and what their privacy policies are before you use them.
If you want to be serious about your privacy or your security then you really should be looking at paid VPN. If you pay for the service you are generally going to get access to more exit gateways, unlimited data use and the logging policies focused on protecting user data. Beware though that just because you pay for something, it does not mean that it is good. There are a lot of VPNs out there and many are bad. Do your research, take advantage of free trials and take your time before you decide, you don’t want to buy a year subscription only to find out that you are unhappy with the service.
Can GeekReply point me in the right direction?
We’d love to, as part of a long-term effort to help our readers stay safe we’re beginning a short series on tools that will beef up your privacy and security.
Over the next couple of days I’ll be posting a list of our recommend paid and free VPNs. Subscribe to our twitter feed or facebook page to make sure you don’t miss them or any of our other great articles.
If you have any burning questions in the meantime, then please leave a comment and I will do my best to help.