Not all virtual private networks (VPNs) are created equal. Some keep logs, some cap your traffic, some don't work on mobile, some don't work at all. This is what you need to know about choosing a VPN provider, as well as a few recommendations to get you started.
VPN picture from Shutterstock
For the uninitiated, VPN (virtual private network) software effectively encrypts your online activity to mask your IP address, allowing you to surf the web free from the prying eyes of eavesdroppers, hackers, and government agencies. VPNs come in all shapes and sizes with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. It's up to us to take online privacy into our own hands -- and VPNs are the best way to do it.
What The Hell Is A VPN?
You may have heard a lot about VPNs over the last few weeks thanks to a few different pieces of legislation that have passed through the Australian government. One is a scheme that would see all your data collected and archived by your ISP for law enforcement purposes and the other is a system designed to block pirate sites such as The Pirate Bay, Project Free TV and Kickass Torrents. What both these schemes fail to address is where VPN users fit in.
Put simply, a virtual private network is a group of computers (or discrete networks) connected together over a public network -- namely, the internet. Businesses use VPNs to connect to remote data centres, or for employees to connect remotely to the physical network of their workplace. Individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they’re not physically on the same LAN (local area network), or as a method for securing and encrypting their communications when they’re using an untrusted public network.
What a VPN does is route all the traffic of your computer (or your entire network, if you're running it on a router rather than a PC) not directly to the internet through your ISP, but first through a different server that has the effect of anonymising your traffic's point of origin. A VPN will add an additional hop to the route your data takes between your PC and a site like Facebook, but it's that extra hop that obfuscates its original location.
When you connect to a VPN, you launch a VPN client on your computer (or click a link on a special website), log in with your credentials, and your computer exchanges trusted keys with a remote server. Once both computers have verified each other’s identity, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.
There are a few different types of VPN. You can pay to access a bespoke VPN provider every month which would see your data piped through a private pipe, or you can use a peer-to-peer VPN service that uses other people's computers as the endpoints. The latter is more problematic, as we'll cover in a moment.
Why Would You Need One?
There are a few different reasons to employ a VPN.
You could be a traveller who needs to access files stored on a server in your home country. You may want to use it to get access to another country's Netflix library like the US or UK. You may want it to connect to your employer's corporate network. You may just want it to keep your data safe and secure from anyone who might be trying to listen in.
No matter what you use a VPN for, you'll need to keep a few things in mind.
Before You Sign Up
Before you start piping all of your data through someone else's connection -- whether it's another internet denizen, or a company that specifically offers VPN services -- it's worth keeping a few things in mind about virtual private network operators.
Firstly: whether you use a VPN or not, your data is never 100 per cent safe. Ever. That means you should be especially cautious of VPN providers, given you are sending your data through their pipes from the moment you fire it up.
It's crucial to know what your both your data and your IP address are being used for, especially when it comes to peer-to-peer VPNs. Hola was recently busted for hijacking users' computers to sell their bandwidth, for example, and it's a perfect example of the danger of a VPN turning you into the money-making product.
What you need to do is be sure that the VPN provider you've chosen to use is open and honest about its traffic and security policies. Find one with accessible documents that detail how your data is handled from point to point.
You should also make sure that the VPN you sign up to isn't about to cap the bandwidth or the quantity of the data going through the tunnel. Make sure that when you sign up you get your money's worth, and sign up to a plan that doesn't limit your traffic or cap you based on certain download quotas. What's the point of paying for a VPN, only to have it cut you off halfway through the month?
It's also worth keeping an eye out for a VPN provider that will give you mobile options as well as desktop support. The internet goes everywhere with you on your smartphone, so your VPN should be able to as well.
Keep It Simple
Depending on what you want to use your VPN for, you might not even need to shell out cash every month for access to a VPN. You may just need to keep it simple and trust Google.
As the Sydney Morning Herald points out, sometimes getting around certain ISP-level blocking technology is as simple as pointing your DNS settings at Google's own DNS server.
This isn't a VPN, but for certain uses it will have the same effect. Google's Domain Name Servers (hosted at 22.214.171.124 or 126.96.36.199) have been used by protesters in countries like Turkey and Egypt to get around ISP-level DNS poisoning, and now it can be used by Aussies to get around similar site blocking methods.
This won't get you around every site block on the planet, however: you'll still need a VPN if you want international media service like Netflix and Hulu to think you're in a different country, or to safeguard your data through a secure tunnel.
So Which Services Are Good?
With these recommendations in mind, we've collected five great VPNs for you to get started with.
IPVanish has consistently appeared on our lists of recommended VPNs, and they're still going strong. They're a little bit pricier on a yearly basis than most VPNs, but if the internet is to be believed they're well worth the price. From our last VPN guide (figures have been updated):
IPVanish takes an interesting approach to privacy and security. It uses shared IP addresses, so your activity can’t be singled out from others using the service. They claim over 40,0000 IPs to share on over 500 exit servers in more than 60 different countries. You can choose where you’d prefer to connect, which again is perfect for getting around location restrictions, and encryption makes sure your traffic is safe from prying eyes.
IPVanish is a strong contender for anyone who has use for a mobile based VPN -- their support team will walk you through the set up process for a mobile device, and they're one of the few VPNs that offer support for Windows Phone users (along with the more common Android and iOS, and Mac, Windows and Ubuntu on desktop computers).
IPVanish doesn't keep logs aside from storing account and site visitor information for billing purposes, and its OSX client features a kill switch.
IPVanish boasts relatively good speeds for torrenting, and recent comments have indicated that US Netflix is working with this service, though that might have changed in the meantime.
ExpressVPN is one of the most expensive VPNs available, though for good reason. Their support and customer service is stellar, with direct support email addresses listed on their website, quick response times and a 24/7 live chat. It supports an extensive range of devices -- Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, Linux, Chromebook, Kindle Fire, PlayStation, Apple TV and routers. Each one of these has an easy set up guide on ExpressVPN's website.
It's also one of the few VPNs that has had little trouble with Netflix. While some servers have been blocked by Netflix, the support staff in the website's live chat are able to tell you which server to connect to. The PC and mobile apps offer region switching in order to access different countries' Netflix libraries, though it's only possible to unblock US Netflix on the PlayStation and other compatible devices.
Express keeps no logs, though its clients don't include a kill switch. Despite a high monthly price, ExpressVPN offers a decent discount for an annual subscription, and comes with a 30-day no-risk money back guarantee.
SlickVPN is a name that has been popping up more often recently, as it is one of the VPNs that people have found fairly reliable for accessing US Netflix. It's also decently affordable, and comes with a 30-day refund guarantee. It also offers a subscription package between the standard one month and one year, with a price of $20 for three months.
It offers 5 simultaneous connections from a maximum of two IP addresses as part of your subscription. Slick also boasts a technology they call HYDRA, which "provides the most secure connection possible using extra hops over our internal network". They claim this is the most secure VPN connection possible at this time.
SlickVPN doesn't keep logs, and provides 24/7 technical support via its website. Like many of the more privacy-concerned VPNs, SlickVPN offers a range of payment options such as cash, cheque and money order.
While Ivacy isn't quite as reputable as the other VPNs listed above, it's dirt cheap for quite a speedy service -- one speedtest on the Whirlpool forums had the VPN performing at the same speeds as their connection did without the VPN. At $1.83 a month (when you purchase a yearly subscription) it's not a hard sell for anyone who might be strapped for cash. Just be careful about their 7-day money-back guarantee, which is only valid if less than 500mb in data transfers have been made.
While Ivacy do offer live chat support, the service isn't available 24 hours a day -- though you can leave a message for support staff to get back to you as soon as they're able. Ivacy doesn't keep logs and does have a kill switch, as well as allowing the connection of a decent 5 devices simultaneously.
Ivacy does seem able to unblock US Netflix, and though it can be a bit of a process that's not unusual for anyone who's been playing VPN hopscotch with Netflix. Their support staff are reportedly happy to help you connect.
It does have a slightly dodgy history of essentially bribing bloggers and reviewers with free subscriptions, however, so some of the more glowingly positive reviews and comments should be taken with a very large grain of salt.
NordVPN is another decently cheap option with good flexibility. It has a standard price of $48 for an annual subscription, though a current offer has the same for $36 at the time being. It offers a wide range of compatibility for a whole bunch of different devices and operating systems, although it only allows you to have two simultaneous streams at a time.
While many users have reported that NordVPN isn't working with Netflix, they've been committed to finding a workaround as the Netflix blocking intensifies. NordVPN users should be able to contact support to get help getting set up on a server that isn't yet blocked. For its part, NordVPN is preparing workaround options for customers who become affected.
Although NordVPN isn't quite as fast as other options in Australia, it comes loaded with a bunch of features, including a kill switch. Its support service features 24/7 live chat, a direct email contact for support questions and an extensive support database. It also doesn't keep logs.
Do It Yourself
The last one we have for you requires a little more work than the ones featured above.
Naturally, the DIY approach is popular with our friends at Lifehacker. If you don’t need exit servers in different countries, and your primary requirement is to encrypt and secure your data when you’re away from home, you can roll yout own VPN with OpenVPN or a number of other free, open-source tools.
Many of the best routers on the market support OpenVPN. Alternatively, DD-WRT or Tomato firmware both offer VPN access, so if you can install either of those on your router, you’ll be set. The beauty of a home-rolled VPN is that you get to set the level of encryption, and you have complete control over who connects, who has access to what parts of your home network, and where your data goes from there.
This setup is particularly appealing for people travelling who want to encrypt their data while they’re on the road, but if you work with a couple of friends, it’s easy to set up a mesh network that would get you around content restrictions and port blocks. Similarly, advanced users can fire up a VPN on their preferred host or VPS provider, and keep their VPN running there while they connect to it when necessary. You won’t receive quite as much as a professional VPN service provides, but you might get everything that you need at zero cost.
This story has been updated from its original publication date.
Alan Henry and Hayley Williams also contributed to this article.