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Virtual Private networks (VPN) have become more popular since Edward Snowden’s revelation on government snooping. But recently the rash of corporate and communications data grabbing has expanded the interest levels even further.
If you’re concerned about online privacy, a virtual private network (VPN) will help keep snoopers at bay.
Over the past few years public awareness of VPNs has grown, but for many they are still a mystery. Traditionally, they were used by businesses to enable their employees to access a company’s internal network securely. Nowadays people use them for two main things: viewing content in other countries, and personal privacy.
Many websites based in other countries have limits on how those in other countries connect. It may be in an area with limited resources so bandwidth is restrained, it may be for political or religious reasons, or it could even be they only will allow content accessed from within their borders.
Even the Netflix we view here is not the same as in some European countries. The content available varies across countries due to licensing restrictions.
This creates a problem as it means you can’t view local websites when you’re abroad or access the second season of your favorite program that’s on in the US but isn’t available elsewhere.
And it’s not just for travelers either. Perhaps you want to look at newspapers or media in other countries, you could easily be blocked since our IP addresses are no in the list of ‘approved IP addresses’ in their country.
That’s pretty annoying but is where a VPN can help.
More importantly, though, a VPN can help protect your identity online and keep you safe from prying eyes. It stops websites from being able to spy on you by hiding data that can identify you.
How does a VPN work?
A Virtual Private Network creates a private tunnel over the internet to a server. This can be located in the same country as you or located somewhere else. This means that, in theory, you can watch your favorite US show because that’s where it thinks you are. Crucially, all data traffic sent over the VPN is encrypted, so it cannot be intercepted.
To get started you’ll need to install some software on your PC, Mac or mobile device. Once you’ve logged in, choose a server in the location where you’d like to ‘virtually’ appear. You then just carry on as normal, safe in the knowledge that your activities are protected.
You may not want all your web traffic to go via your VPN account, perhaps because of a data cap or the fact that the connection is slower than when connected normally via your ISP. In this case, it’s probably best to install VPN software that you can turn on or off when you need.
Are free VPNs good?
Many free VPN’s are just as secure as their paid versions. Usually the only difference is the number of connections and exit servers you are allowed to use. For most people, a free service will be sufficient.
However, if you are a constant traveler, or regularly connect to overseas websites, an upgraded paid-for service might be better. That way you would have many more locations you can appear to be virtually located. But don’t pass over a free version; many are just as good as the paid ones.
How a VPN can protect your privacy
The story of activists such as Edward Snowden, and Apple’s battle with the US government to unlock an iPhone, have raised the profile of the need for privacy. Your ISP will have records of all the websites you visit and if so ordered by the government could be compelled to hand over that information. If you don’t like the sound of that, using a VPN makes sense.
Even if you are not too concerned about this, when you’re using a laptop or mobile device on a public Wi-Fi, you are exposing your browsing habits to anyone that is so inclined to snoop. And if you have ever conducted online banking over a public Wi-Fi network, you are really asking for trouble if you’re not going through a VPN.
How to choose which VPN is best for you
If you’re concerned about privacy, it’s important to know where your VPN is based. In recent years some countries have got together to agree to exchange information freely, nominally in a bid to enhance everyone’s security. However, many groups are critical of this behavior believing that mass surveillance impinges on our freedoms.
The countries that have agreed to exchange information are known as the Five Eyes: USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. (Read more about the alliance here) The concern from privacy groups is that a government could compel a VPN provider to supply information on its users through a court order. If you choose to use a VPN located in the country you live in, make sure it doesn’t log your connections.
What information do VPNs keep logs of?
Additionally, many VPN providers have different levels of logging. Some choose to log connection time stamps, IP address and bandwidth used, while others choose to log nothing at all. Needless to say you have to trust the VPN provider that it isn’t monitoring your traffic, otherwise you are heading right into a privacy breach, instead of protecting yourself from one.
Some will also store basic payment information, such as your name and address. However, those looking for complete anonymity can seek a provider that accepts payment in the form of gift cards or Bitcoin, which makes it near-impossible to trace back to an individual.
What features should I look for in a VPN?
Most VPNs support all the major platforms. Also look out for restrictions on usage – some ban P2P, while others are fine with it. Free versions normally have speed restrictions, while paid-for versions should have none.
Also if you’re connecting to a server that’s geographically far away, you are less likely to get the full speed that your ISP provides. Look out for server speed claims and make sure that you conduct tests to check whether you are happy with your connection speed.
And remember, not all Internet activity needs to be protected. Maybe using the web to get movie times isn’t as important as making bank payments online.
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