With ever-growing concerns over identity and data theft while using the internet, home users have joined the legions of large and small companies who are using Virtual Private Networks to protect their online activities from hackers. You can find dozens of Virtual Private Network (VPN) products to choose from at prices ranging from free for software solutions to hundreds of dollars for dedicated hardware boxes. However, most consumers choose VPN software that can be installed inside their computers or mobile devices to make their communications invisible to governments and criminals alike.
NOTE: For explanations of VPNs, see my earlier articles:
Why You Want to Use a VPN at https://privacyblog.com/2014/11/01/why-you-want-to-use-a-vpn/
How To Set Up A VPN (And Why It’s A Good Idea To Use One) at https://privacyblog.com/2015/01/24/how-to-set-up-a-vpn-and-why-its-a-good-idea-to-use-one/
VPN systems create a point-to-point secure “tunnel” through the Internet, connecting your computer to a VPN server at some other location. For instance, you might install VPN software in your home computer or in the laptop you use from hotel rooms when traveling. Once running and connected to the Internet, your VPN software creates a tunnel to another computer (I will call it a VPN server) in a distant location, typically in a data center operated by a VPN provider. Your communications to and from that distant server are encrypted so that nobody can intercept and view what you are sending and receiving. At the distant VPN server, your communications are decrypted and then relayed to the open Internet.
Theoretically, someone could intercept your communications as it leaves the distant server; but the experience of thousands of VPN users has shown that such interception is nearly impossible. The packets of data sent between the VPN server and other servers on the Internet do not contain identifying information showing that the packets originated with you. As a result, it is nearly impossible for a thief to identify and watch your packets that are mixed in with the thousands of other unidentified packets of information being sent and received by other VPN users. Corporations, government agencies, financial institutions, and others use VPNs to safely and securely move information and money across the Internet.
Again, a VPN requires at least two computing devices: your computer and a VPN server located somewhere else. Most of the free VPN products provide only the “client” software to be installed in the user’s computer(s). The user must somehow supply the remote VPN server.
In contrast, commercial VPN services typically supply VPN software to be installed in the user’s computer(s) and also have VPN servers running in one or more data centers around the world. The software installed in the user’s computer connects to one or more of the VPN servers. As a result, the user’s packets of data sent and received appear to be coming from the remote server, not from the user’s local computer.
Most commercial VPN services charge a monthly or annual fee to cover the expenses of running the remote VPN servers. A few commercial VPN services may also offer a limited amount of free data each month. However, the amount of data allowed is limited or the free service is throttled to a rather slow speed. That may suffice for occasional use but isn’t practical for day-in and day-out use.
To make the best choice among these services, I considered where and how I would need them. I travel frequently and need a VPN service to protect my online data from snoops when using public wi-fi connections in coffee shops, airports, train stations, hotel rooms, and elsewhere. Since I may use different devices for different activities, I want to use VPN connections from my desktop computer at home as well as from my laptop computer, tablet computer, and “smartphone.” I need VPN software for all of those devices.
I also want to be able to use simultaneous connections, such as using the laptop computer at the same time as receiving occasional alerts on the smartphone. Some commercial VPN services will only allow installation in one device or only allow operation from only one device at a time. That restriction does not fit my needs.
Additionally, I want a service that offers VPN servers in a number of countries so that I can access “location restricted” services. For instance, the U.S. version of Netflix only allows connection from U.S. IP addresses. Similarly, watching television programs on BBC’s web servers is restricted to computers connecting to the servers from U.K. IP addresses. Some sporting events that are broadcast over the Internet are also restricted by IP addresses. A VPN service that offers servers in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere will allow me to watch U.S. Netflix movies or NFL games—whether I am at home in the U.S. or in a hotel room in London.
Your needs probably are different than mine although I would suggest that everyone needs privacy. You should first consider your own requirements and then find a service that matches your needs. I can describe my successful experience with a service that meets my needs.
After evaluating a number of VPN services, I signed up for Private Internet Access, a service I will abbreviate to “PIA.” It is a VPN service that encrypts your connection and provides you with an anonymous IP address to protect your privacy. PIA offers VPN servers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, Romania, Hong Kong, Israel, Australia, and Japan; therefore, it will let me access any “location restricted” services in those countries. The company also supplies VPN services for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Android, and Apple iOS (iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch) systems. Best of all, PIA allows each user’s account to have up to five simultaneous connections from five different computer devices.
Finally, I felt that PIA was a cost-effective service: $6.95 a month or $39.95 a year for payment made a year in advance. The annual payment saves quite a bit of money when compared to the monthly rate, so I signed up for the $39.95 annual service. I now use PIA’s VPN service all the time from my desktop system at home, from the laptop when traveling, and also from the cell phone and tablet computer.
NOTE: With a cell phone, standard voice calls still are routed through the cell phone company’s voice service without any additional encryption. The VPN is not used when talking on the cell phone. Only data connections are routed through the VPN, such as when reading and writing email, surfing the web, and similar activities. However, I can encrypt voice calls by using a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service that connects via data connections. Such VoIP services include Ooma, Skype, Vonage, and many others.
Installation on both my Windows and Macintosh systems was simple: click on an icon on the PIA web site, wait for the download to complete, then click on the newly-downloaded file. The installation software launched, and I needed to answer a few simple questions, such as my user name, password, and a selection for which VPN server I wished to connect to. There were no techie issues to deal with as everything was simple and obvious. Within a minute or so, the VPN software was installed and running. I elected to first connect to a VPN server in Sweden. When I checked my IP address at http://www.WhatIsMyIp.com, it showed a Swedish IP address. When I attempted to go to Google.com, I was redirected to the Norwegian Google home page. (I am not sure why it defaults to Norway instead of Sweden.) When I looked for a rental car on Hotwire.com, all the prices were displayed in Swedish krona, even for rentals in the United States. The Hotwire.com web site apparently decided I was a Swedish tourist or business person looking to rent a car in the U.S., so it displayed prices in krona.
I disconnected from the Swedish VPN server and then connected to one in the U.S. From then on, all the web sites I accessed were the normal U.S. sites I often use. Of course, I can switch the connection at any time to any of PIA’s other VPN servers, including those in other countries.
Installation of PIA’s VPN service on an Android or on Apple’s iOS operating system is a bit more involved but not terribly difficult. Step-by-step instructions may be found by first going to https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/pages/client-support/ and then clicking on the device you wish to use. I was able to configure PIA VPN on my iPhone and iPad within a few minutes. I suspect the same will be true on Android although I didn’t have an Android device available for testing at the time.
The only significant drawback I can find to Private Internet Access’ VPN service was that the company assigned a user ID and password to me, and I can find no way to change them. They are both cryptic combinations of letters and numbers and are very difficult to memorize. Admittedly, this is both a drawback and an advantage. The advantage is that the cryptic combination creates better security. If I could create my own user name and password, I probably would create something I could remember—something that would also be easier for a hacker to discover by using a brute force attack. In theory, the use of cryptic user names and passwords will increase security; however, I doubt if this is actually true. How secure can they be when I have to write them down someplace and carry the user name and password with me when I want to use them?
Next, all VPN connections will slow the flow of data a bit. I performed speed tests at http://www.speedtest.net both with and without the VPN connection enabled and found about a 3% speed reduction when using the VPN. Admittedly, I did not notice any degradation myself when surfing the web. If I had not used a speed testing web site, I would never have known about the slight slowdown on my 60-megabit-per-second Internet service. However, if using a slower Internet connection, the degradation may have been noticeable.
All in all, I am pleased with my VPN service from Private Internet Access. My communications are now secure and probably are safe from hackers. In addition, I can now watch the U.K. version of the Who Do You Think You Are? television program and NFL games from my home or from anyplace else in the world as long as I have a reasonably fast Internet connection. Best of all, the new security and freedom costs me about eleven cents a day.
If you are interested in Private Internet Access’ VPN service, look at all the information available at: https://www.privateinternetaccess.com.