If you're concerned about your privacy when browsing the internet, a virtual private network (VPN) is the best way to tell any snoopers to shove off. There's a problem though. VPNs are notoriously shady, are more complicated than they look, they're unregulated, and can be more of a security risk than they're worth if you don't set them up correctly.
Art by Jim Cookie/GMG.
We've talked about what a VPN is plenty of times before, but let's take a second for a quick refresher. A VPN encrypts your data before it leaves your device, and that data stays encrypted while it travels through your local network and internet service provider (ISP) until it reaches the VPN provider's servers. This process is referred to as "tunnelling". When the traffic reaches the VPN's servers, it's decrypted and sent off to the internet at large. This is generally useful if you're using the internet in a public place, like a cafe Wi-Fi network where someone might be trying to spy on your traffic. It's also useful if you want to hide your traffic from your ISP or get around a government firewall, since they won't be able to see what websites you visit.
You might know what a virtual private network (VPN) is, but the odds of you actually using one are low. You really should be using a VPN — ultimately, you may end up seeing it as just as vital as your internet connection. We'll tell you why, explain how to choose a VPN provider and list five that are worth considering.
'VPNs Protect You From Ad Tracking'
If you want to block ad trackers, you should use privacy-focused browser extensions like uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. These will prevent ad-trackers from following you around and won't slow down your web browsing like a VPN does.
There are lots of browser extensions that promise to protect your privacy, which leads to some natural questions: Which is the best? Do they all do the same thing? What should I really download? In this guide, we're going to look at the most popular browser extensions that promise to protect your privacy online, and give you our recommendations.
'You Won't Even Notice a Difference Using a VPN'
Security comes at the cost of speed, and using a VPN will almost always slow down your internet connection a little bit. Between the security protocols and the encryption, there's no way around this.
How much this matters depends on what you do on the internet, the speed of your VPN provider, and where you're tunnelling into. If you're tunnelling into a VPN outside of your country, that will add latency no matter what, so expect a slower connection. If you stay within your country, this won't have the same effect, but it will still be a bit slower than usual. For general browsing this won't make a huge difference, but you'll notice slowdown for large file downloads or uploads and video streaming.
Some services and web sites block VPNs altogether because they don't want you to circumvent region restrictions. Netflix is the most notorious for this, but Hulu tried as well. This might have a different effect depending on where in the world you're located.
'Using a VPN Makes You Automatically Secure and Private'
The entire purpose of a VPN is security, but if you set it up wrong (or a provider sets it up wrong), then you might lose that security. Likewise, your VPN provider can see all your traffic, which means it can potentially log everything you do or even modify that traffic.
Research published by High-Tech Bridge found that many VPNs used one of several different outdated encryption methods, including the very outdated Point-To-Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP). That's assuming they're encrypting data at all -- VPNs can do whatever they want until someone calls out their BS. Don't believe me? Earlier this year, security researchers found that 18 per cent of VPN apps on Android don't do the one basic thing VPNs are made to do: Encrypt traffic. Eighty four per cent also leaked user data. That's just on Android.
If a VPN isn't set up properly, it could also leak your IP address, which links all your data back to you and is problematic if you're using a VPN for privacy. After you set up a VPN, test it to make sure it isn't leaking your IP address. Leaking can happen due to an old web exploit, or because of a basic security flaw when it's improperly set up.
VPNs are great for security, but one of the big reasons many people use one is to mask or change their IP address. This lets you get around location-based restrictions on content, or check if your provider is throttling your connection. Unfortunately, a new security flaw can reveal your real IP address to prying eyes, even if you're using a VPN, and it's easy to exploit. Here's how it works and what you can do about it.
'There's a Best VPN'
It would make everyone's lives easier if someone could compile a list of the best VPNs, right? But it turns out picking a trustworthy and reliable VPN is next to impossible. On the most basic level, why you're using a VPN affects your search for a reliable one. Some are more about security, some are about getting around regional blocks, while others are more about privacy. Some are in Australia, many are not. All those factors alter how the service works.
Unlike a lot of services we all use, VPNs aren't regulated and aren't pushed through security audits. A VPN can say basically anything they want about privacy and security, but nobody is holding them accountable. The only public liability they have comes from users unearthing shady practices.
Which is all to say, you have to do your research. Security takes homework beyond a quick search on Google. We've walked through this a bit before: You'll need to search for a VPN providers logging rules, take a look at forum posts to see if anyone's talking about them, and test your VPN after you've set it up. If you can't find anything about a VPN provider online, or if a deal sounds "too good to be true", it probably is. Thankfully, the more popular a service is, the more people hold that service accountable.
VPNs might be in the public eye today, but that doesn't make them any easier to understand. They're complicated, nerdy things, and while setting one up is trivial, finding one that's legit requires the same amount of effort any other $70-$130/year purchase does, so treat it like one.
For our part, we've long recommended Private Internet Access, SlickVPN, NordVPN, Hideman and Tunnelbear because they have been reputable over the years, but that's not an all-inclusive list, nor is it one we can consistently update. The Privacy Site attempts to catalogue VPNs based on where they're located and their logging rules, but even that's such a complex undertaking that it's never completely up to date.
Whichever service you go with, make sure you do the required research ahead of time, then take a few extra moments to make sure everything is set up and properly working.