What Is a VPN and why you need one in 2016
If you’ve ever had to connect to a corporate network while working remotely, you may already be familiar with the technology. In the simplest terms, a VPN creates a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and the VPN’s server. This tunnel makes you part of the company’s network as if you were physically sitting in the office, hence the name. While connected to the VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one in between can see what you are up to. A consumer VPN service does the same thing, but extends that protection to the public.
Think about it this way: If your car pulls out of your driveway, someone can follow you and see where you are going, how long you are at your destination, and when you are coming back. With a VPN service, you are essentially driving into a closed parking garage, switching to a different car, and driving out, and no one who was originally following you knows where you went.
Of course, it would be misleading to claim that any security product is a magic bullet. VPN services, while tremendously helpful, are not foolproof. A determined adversary can almost always breach your defenses in one way or another. VPN can’t help if you unwisely download ransomware on a visit to the Dark Web. What a VPN can do is to protect you against mass data collection and the casual criminal vacuuming up user data for later use.
Who Needs a VPN?
The protection provided by VPNs offers many advantages. First and foremost, it prevents anyone on the same Wi-Fi hotspot (or anywhere else) from intercepting your Web traffic. This is especially handy for travelers and for those using public Wi-Fi networks. VPNs also cloak your computer’s actual IP address, making it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
This is just good security, but there are people for whom VPNs are essential. Journalists and activists rely on VPN services to get around government censors so that they can safely communicate with the outside world. Of course, that may be against the law in countries with strict censorship.
Some services, such as TorGuard, allow peer-to-peer file sharing and the use of a BitTorrent client. Others, like HideIPVPN, will cancel your subscription if you use their servers for file sharing. Be smart: Don’t ignore the company’s terms of service. You can’t complain if you get caught.
How to Choose a VPN Service in 2016
The VPN services market has exploded over the past three years. Many providers are capitalizing on the general population’s growing concerns about surveillance and cyber-crime, which means it’s getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it’s throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil. It’s important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you: reputation, performance, type of encryption used, transparency, ease of use, support, and extra features. Don’t just focus on price.
If you’re using a service to route all your Internet traffic through its servers, you have to be able to trust the provider. Most VPN providers tend to be standalone companies, such as Spotflux and AnchorFree, which makes it a little harder to figure out whom to trust. Established security companies, such as F-Secure, may have only recently come to the VPN market. It’s easier to trust companies that have been around a little longer, simply because their reputation is likely to be known. But companies and products can change quickly. Today’s slow VPN service that won’t let you cancel your subscription could be tomorrow’s poster child for excellence.
Performance is a must for a VPN service. Not so long ago, there weren’t a lot of VPN choices, so services could get away with hiccups and connection lags while online. Now there are services that offer a great experience online while keeping you secure, so there’s no reason to accept slow speeds or unreliable servers. I spend about a week testing each service at varying times of the day and from different locations to make sure I get a good idea of how the service behaves as a whole.
Look for services that provide a free trial, and take advantage of it. Make sure you are happy with what you sign up for, since most of them will not give refunds. This is actually why I also recommend starting out with a short term—a week or a month—to really make sure you are happy. Yes, you may get that discount by signing up for a year, but that’s more money to lose if you realize the service doesn’t meet your performance needs.
I’m not a cryptography expert, so I can’t verify all of the encryption claims providers make. I focus, instead, on the features provided. The more protection that a VPN service offers, the better I tend to rate it. Bonus features like ad-blocking, firewalls, and kill switches that disconnect you from the Web if your VPN connection drops go a long way toward keeping you safe. I also prefer providers that use OpenVPN, since it’s a standard that’s superior to the older, more widespread PPTP standard.
Most users want a full graphic user interface to manage their VPN connection and settings, though a few would rather download a configuration file and import it into the OpenVPN client. Most VPN companies I’ve reviewed support all levels of technological savvy, and the best have robust customer support for when things go sideways.
While a VPN can protect you online, you still might want to take the additional step of avoiding credit cards for moral or security reasons. Several VPN services now accept PayPal, Bitcoin, and other alternate payment methods. In a few cases, VPN services may even accept retailer gift cards. That Starbucks gift card may be better spent on secure Web browsing than a mediocre-at-best latte.
Of course, not all VPN services require that you pay. Several of the services we’ve listed here also supply free VPN services. You tend to get what you pay for, as far as features and server locations go, but if your needs are basic, a free service can still keep you safe.
Using a VPN for Netflix and Other Forbidden Treasures
The Internet isn’t as free as you’d probably like to believe. Borders still exist on the Web. Take the Olympics, for example. In the US, TV viewers have to wait until the evening to see coverage if they’re not cable subscribers. And to watch online or in apps, you generally have to prove you have a cable subscription. If you live in Canada or England, you get live coverage with far better commentary, for free, online. But if you can make it appear as if your computer is not in the US, you, too, can watch those streams.
VPNs let you do just that. By selecting a VPN server in another country, your computer will appear to have a non-US IP address. The Internet can be borderless once again.
The same is true with Netflix. Outside the US, Netflix is one of the content distributors of choice for some premium shows like Game of Thrones that aren’t available via Netflix from the US. Even new, major-release films get this treatment outside the US. Many people in the US are eager to spoof their IP addresses to get access to this content. The trouble is that Netflix and similar streaming services are getting wise to the scam. In my testing, I found that Netflix blocked streaming more often than not when I was using a foreign server. There are a few exceptions, but I also have to assume that Netflix is actively working to protect its content deals. What works today may not work tomorrow.
You’ll note that I said “scam,” above, and that is more or less true. Just because a content provider makes something free in one place, doesn’t mean you’re legally entitled to view it from another location. And, even if you paid for content in one region, that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to stream it in another one. Media distribution and rights are incredibly messy and complicated. You may or may not agree with the laws and terms of service surrounding media streaming, but you should definitely be aware that they exist and understand when you’re taking the risk of breaking them.
The Performance Problem
While it’s often said that having to choose between security and convenience is a false dichotomy, it’s actually pretty true in the case of VPNs. When a VPN is active, your Web traffic is going through many more steps than normal and likely being bounced around in surprising ways. The end result is that your Internet connection will be more sluggish than normal.
The good news is that using a VPN probably isn’t going to remind you of the dial-up days of yore. Most services provide perfectly adequate Internet speed when in use, though streaming video still poses a challenge for even the best VPN service. In response, VPN services have started to roll out specialty servers for high-bandwidth activities. Of course, you can always limit your VPN use to when you’re not on a trusted network.
Pick a VPN Service Already!
Antivirus tools are critical for keeping your computer and your information safe. But many people are waking up to the fact that if they value their privacy, they need a VPN, too. It keeps your information secure, and can actively protect some very common avenues for attack.
Even if you don’t use it every moment of every day, a VPN is a fundamental tool that everyone should have at their disposal—like a password manager or online backup service. And one that will only become more important as our devices become more connected. So get safe, and get a VPN.