NOTE: This is an update to an article I published last year. Much of the explanatory text is unchanged but one vendor has disappeared, a new and highly-rated as well as inexpensive vendor has appeared, and one other vendor has been found to be installing spyware in its customers’ computers. This article has been updated to reflect the changes.
If you are concerned about anyone snooping on the Internet and seeing what you are doing online, you might consider installing a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a distant server to let you conduct your online activities (visit the websites you want, make online transactions, download files) anonymously, without being tracked and spied upon. VPN technology uses a combination of features such as encryption, tunneling protocols, data encapsulation, and certified connections to provide you with a secure connection to private networks and to protect your identity. Luckily, VPN products are available for Windows, Macintosh, iPhone/iPad, Android, and Chromebook systems. One product will even work with Xbox, VoIP telephones, and other devices that do not allow for installation of networking software.
I believe my Internet connection at home is somewhat secure, although certainly not iron-clad. When at home, I perform “casual web surfing” without a VPN but then enable VPN software when conducting online transactions where my credit card information may be transmitted or to access any web site where I might be exposing sensitive information, even such things as my mother’s maiden name.
The biggest appeal for me, however, is when traveling.
I always use a VPN when connected to the Internet through a wi-fi connection or via any other public network while in a hotel room, at the airport, in coffee shops, or anyplace else where I am dependent on someone else’s potentially insecure network connection.
If you don’t use a VPN, your internet connections can be subjected to spammers, snoopers, and hackers. These villains silently monitor your online activities and steal your sensitive data, including credit card information and passwords, when you least expect it. In many cases, they track your I.P. (Internet Protocol) address as you move from web site to web site. By tracking your online activities, these villains can learn a lot about you and your online habits. If you connect with a VPN, you get a new I.P. address to mask your actual IP address and to surf the Internet anonymously.
VPNs also provide other benefits. Perhaps one of the most popular uses is to bypass filters and firewalls set by your network administrator or by government censors so that you can access your favorite content anytime and anywhere you want. Perhaps you want to access a “forbidden” site from school or from the office. A more serious use is for citizens in countries with repressive governments that block some web sites or perhaps monitor web traffic to spy on the country’s citizens. Such repressive governments include China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and the United States of America. A VPN will block most government spies and simultaneously allow access to almost anything available online.
Many corporations use VPNs to allow remote employees or customers to securely access company servers for business purposes. If your company has trade secrets that need to be protected (and what company doesn’t?), a VPN may be the answer.
Another use is to allow access to sites that restrict access to one country, such as many of the online movie and television video streaming sites. Such sites include Netflix, Hulu, and several others. If you want to watch U.S. television programs or Netflix movies from another country, a VPN network that connects to a VPN server in the U.S. will allow such access.
For instance, you may be sitting inside a coffee shop in Dubai; but by connecting to a remote VPN server, you can appear to connect to the Internet from another location (i.e. San Francisco or New York) which hosts the VPN server you’re connecting to. This enables you to bypass regional Internet restrictions and get access to content (i.e. YouTube, Facebook, BBC) or Internet services (i.e. CNN, Google News, Facebook) that are otherwise restricted or censored in the location you are staying in. I have used a VPN to watch Netflix movies and U.S. football games when I was in England and also have watched BBC television programs when I was in the U.S.
A VPN provides a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and a VPN “gateway server””gateway server”located some distance away where your encrypted data gets decrypted and sent on to the web server you are accessing at the moment. The information being sent shows that it originated at the I.P. address of the “gateway server,” not from your local computer. This makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for anyone to track down your real IP address and pinpoint your geographical location.
VPNs encrypt traffic in both directions. That is, both the information you send and the information you receive is encrypted, although everything you see on your computer’s screen looks normal. Encryption for devices connected to a VPN goes beyond just web browsing. It includes VoIP communication, Skype, emails – anything that uses an online connection.
For more information, read How VPNs Work by Jeff Tyson and Stephanie Crawford at http://computer.howstuffworks.com/vpn.htm.
One drawback of VPNs is that they will often slow down your network connection. After all, your computer must spend some of its time encrypting and decrypting information. The information being sent and received also has to travel through more devices on the Internet, including the “gateway servers” mentioned previously. As a result of all this extra overhead, some slowdown is inevitable. The question is, “How much will it slow down?”
The answer is “it all depends.” In my experience, some VPN products slow down network connections more than others.
Several VPN products are even available free of charge. VPN software can be either difficult or easy to install, depending upon the actual VPN product selected. Beware of so-called free VPN services that you find in online advertisements or in Google searches. Some of them offer only limited services and then pester you with ads to upgrade to a paid version in order to obtain full functionality. One or two will even spy in you and perhaps steal your information as you think you are safe from spies. In addition, a few links to “free” VPN services that I checked out when writing this article led me to web sites that are no longer in operation.
Free vs. Paid VPNs
Everyone wants software that is free, right? Well, sometimes. In some cases, software is worth what you pay for it.
To be sure, there are several highly-secure, free VPN services available, but you may need to be a networking guru in order to install and configure these products. With some VPN software, you may need to supply your own “gateway server” at a remote location. If you possess the required technical knowledge, check out OpenVPN at http://openvpn.net/. If you are not a techie, however, I suggest you look elsewhere.
The Private Internet Access web site has a page that I suggest is to be read by anyone considering a VPN solution. It asks 9 questions you should ask about every VPN solution you are considering. Look at https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/pages/free-versus-paid-vpn to see the questions.
Private Internet Access
My current favorite VPN service is Private Internet Access, usually abbreviated as “PIA.” It works on Windows, Macintosh, UNIX, Linux, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, most Android systems, and can even be installed in several Internet routers to provide secure connections to the Internet for all attached systems.
PIA provides all the features that one expects in a VPN product to be installed in a desktop, laptop, or handheld device: P2P and VoIP support; PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec protocols all available; multiple VPN Gateways provided by PIA; unlimited bandwidth (unusual in an inexpensive VPN); SOCKS5 Proxy included; and no noticeable traffic logs. However, the features that impress me most are the low prices and the instant setup.
Private Internet Access lists a price of $6.95 a month. However, the real bargain is paying for one year’s service for $39.95. That works out to about $3.33 a month, a very cheap price for a VPN service that offers unlimited usage and doesn’t seem to slow the network connection appreciably.
Even better, PIA will support up to 5 device simultaneously. That means you can use a VPN connection in your cell phone, your tablet computer, a laptop, and two more devices, all connected online and in use simultaneously. Hmmm, $39.95 for one year’s service divided by 5 devices works out to about 67 cents per device per month. That’s not bad for unlimited data!
Finally, Private Internet Access is a breeze to install. So far, I have installed it on Macintosh, Windows, and Apple iOS (iPhone and iPad) devices. In all cases, the installation was quick and easy: download the installer, click on it, and follow the instructions. Admittedly, I haven’t yet had a reason to install it on any Linux, UNIX, or Android systems. It is possible those installations might be a bit more complex.
You can read more about Private Internet Access at https://goo.gl/bSCkfA.
Hotspot Shield Free VPN
Possibly the most popular of the free VPN products is Hotspot Shield Free VPN. One reason it is so popular is that it is very easy to install. Hotspot Shield VPN also has an “Elite Version” that adds more functionality but costs $29.95 per year. I suspect most users find the free version is sufficient to meet their needs and perhaps will never upgrade to the Elite Version. Best of all, this VPN product is available for Macintosh, Windows, iPhone/iPad & Android devices.
My experience with Hotspot Shield Free VPN is that the slowdown is noticeable, but only if you look for it. In casual surfing, I normally do not notice any speed degradation unless I look for it and specifically turn the VPN off and back on to perform side-by-side comparisons. Most of the time, there is just a minor loss of speed.
Hotspot Shield Free VPN may be a good choice for you. I suggest you first download and install the free version and use it for a while before thinking about upgrading to the “Elite Version.” I suspect that many satisfied users of the free version will never find a need to upgrade.
More information about Hotspot Shield Free VPN and about the “Elite Version” may be found at http://www.hotspotshield.com.
Another VPN product I like is called VPN Unlimited, available for Macintosh, Windows, Linux, iPhone/iPad, and Android systems. It is a very easy product to install and provides top-notch security. Unfortunately, while the web site claims it is free, the offer is really for a 10-day free trial. Paid subscriptions cost about $4 a month although the price drops to as low as roughly $2 a month if you pay for months or even years in advance. Details may be found at https://www.vpnunlimitedapp.com with pricing shown at https://www.vpnunlimitedapp.com/pricing.
TorVPN uses the Tor Network (described later) but is otherwise not affiliated with the Tor Project. It supports: Windows, Macintosh OS X, Linux, Apple iPhone/iPad iOS, and Android. TorVPN can be free, but free users are limited to 1 gigabyte per month of download data before they’re cut off for the remainder of the month. Premium accounts start at 5 Euros per month (roughly $7 U.S. per month) for 5 gigabytes of data and go up to 30 Euros per month (roughly $38 U.S. per month) for 100 gigabytes. You can read more about TorVPN at http://torvpn.com.
WiTopia is perhaps the “Cadillac solution of VPNs.” It supports Windows, Macintosh OS X, Linux, Apple iPhone/iPad iOS, Android, webOS, and even Chromebooks. WiTopia offers one product that I have not seen from the other VPN providers: the company will (optionally) send you a router, called the CloakBox Pro™ VPN Router, with WiTopia’s VPN software pre-installed. You can even take the router with you when you travel. When in use, any device connected to that router will be connected through the WiTopia VPN for Internet access. No software needs to be installed into the computing device when it is used with the WiTopia router; it even works with Xbox, VoIP telephones, and other devices without any additional networking software.
When I used WiTopia software in Windows, Macintosh, and iPad computers, any network slowdown was nearly invisible. I haven’t yet tried the CloakBox Pro™ VPN Router, but it should cause even less speed degradation than software installed within a computer.
WiTopia does not offer a free version. Prices vary from $60 per year to $80 per year, depending on the level of encryption and protocols you need. The WiTopia CloakBox Pro™ Router, sells for $249 and includes one full year of service and support. Service and support for the router is $129 per year thereafter. You can read more about WiTopia’s products and services at https://www.witopia.net.
Finally, I will mention one of my favorite VPN and security products: TorBrowser. It is not a VPN exactly but it does accomplish the same results: security and privacy for all of your online usage. Bundled as a browser and VPN package, it is available free of charge for Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux without needing to install any software. The same organization that produces TorBrowser also produces Orbot: Tor software for Android devices. TorBrowser is always free of charge, there is no version that requires payment. The full product is available to everyone free of charge. The Tor Browser Bundle can run from a USB flash drive and comes with a pre-configured web browser to protect your anonymity. It is perhaps the easiest of all the VPN products to install and use, yet it still provides excellent security.
The Tor Browser Bundle provides both a secure network connection (based on the Torrent network protocol) and a highly secure web browser that will substitute for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or whatever web browser you have been using. In fact, the Tor Network is somewhat the same as using multiple VPN connections. That is, it is loosely similar to using a VPN network to connect to a different VPN network which then connects to still a different VPN network which connects to still a different VPN network and so on. Your data is encrypted and decrypted multiple times as it is sent through a long string of secure connections. This process of encrypting and then sending data through several network nodes is called Onion Routing. A detailed description of Onion Routing may be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onion_routing.
Tor Networking was originally designed, implemented, and deployed as a third-generation onion routing project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. It was developed with the U.S. Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications. Today, it is used every day for a wide variety of purposes by private citizens, the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others. The Tor web site at https://www.torproject.org/about/overview.html.en claims, “A branch of the U.S. Navy uses Tor for open source intelligence gathering, and one of its teams used Tor while deployed in the Middle East recently. Law enforcement uses Tor for visiting or surveilling web sites without leaving government IP addresses in their web logs, and for security during sting operations.”
The Tor Browser Bundle is completely anonymous. Unlike most other VPN solutions, you won’t even be asked to create a user name or password or to supply any other identifying information. The owners of the organization that supplies the Tor software don’t even know who their customers are. You simply download the Tor Browser Bundle and start using it. Should you decide that you don’t care for the product, simply stop using it. You may uninstall it if you wish although that isn’t absolutely necessary.
The downside of using Tor networking and the Tor Browser Bundle is speed degradation. It does slow down online operations significantly. The speed degradation is because Tor networking not only encrypts and decrypts the data, but it also forwards your data on the Tor network through a random pathway using several relay computers that cover your tracks so that no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it’s going. Because all data is relayed through a circuitous path (that changes frequently) involving multiple relays, data transmissions take longer to reach the end point.
Even with the slower performance, I prefer the underlying technology used by the Tor Browser Bundle.
The TorBrowser Bundle may be found at: https://www.torproject.org.
Free VPN Software to Avoid
One very popular VPN product recently received a black eye. While claiming to improve security and privacy, Hola was doing the exact opposite. Users of Hola received more than they bargained for when they signed up for accounts. When they enrolled in the popular free Israel-based VPN service—presumably to conceal their IP addresses to circumvent Internet restrictions abroad, or to evade eavesdroppers—they actually inadvertently enlisted their devices in a robot army. In effect, using Hola INCREASES security problems instead of decreasing problems.
Details may be found at http://lifehacker.com/hola-better-internet-sells-your-bandwidth-turning-its-1707496872.
As I often write, nothing is ever perfect in this world. When it comes to security, there are no guarantees. However, the use of a VPN will lock out most all hackers who are looking for your passwords, credit card numbers, and more. A VPN certainly will impede and possibly even block the NSA. If it is good enough for use by “the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others” as quoted above, it is probably good enough for you and for me.
The only method I know of to lead an even more secure life is to turn off electricity in your house and get rid of all computers, cell phones, telephones, credit cards, and all other contact with the outside world. Oh yes, also never send or receive any letters.
As for me, I prefer to live in the modern, if insecure, world and I use VPN-equipped computers to improve my security.