These days there are plenty of scary news stories about hacking, phishing and general Internet insecurities. So many in fact that it is pretty difficult to trust any connection to the web is safe, even that in your own home – never mind tapping into public 4G and Wi-Fi, yet it’s not always practical or reasonable to be offline for much of the day.
Every day most of us spend some time online, doing a range of things including:
- Checking our favorite social media sites
- Online banking
- Sending emails
- Playing games
- Reading news stories
- Commenting on forums or interest group pages
- Buying tickets for an event, show or gig
- Shopping for everything from groceries to shoes
This means there are plenty of times when our personal and financial data could be hijacked, cloned or stolen, and we are unlikely to have a clue it is happening. One way to reduce this risk is to just stop using the Internet at all, in any form, but that’s impractical or even impossible for some people. Anyhow, why should you need to change your habits and lose out because someone else chooses to behave badly?
The obvious and easy solution is to sign up for a VPN service, something designed specifically to protect your identity and accounts while online.
- Sign up for online TV show sites which require IPs to be in one particular country (usually the USA)
- Look at slightly more risqué sites than you may wish to admit to!
- Use your business/work connection to browse non-work sites like games or casinos without being traceable.
A decent VPN means you can browse any site you like without being tracked or compromising your security in any way.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and although it may sound a bit techie the basics of how they work is quite straightforward and easy to understand. VPNs were invented to help give people privacy and security when browsing online. This means that spying eyes cannot check up on and track the websites you visit and the messages and emails you send, or look over your (virtual) shoulder as you login to your online banking or other sensitive financial sites.
An extra benefit VPNs offer
Although the extra layer of good security is what mainly sells VPNs to the public there is another benefit – the masked IP. IPs, of course, are like street addresses for net users, (although they don’t run neatly down a street the way houses usually do.) Anyone can trace an IP to a general area of the country the user is in (using a simple online tool), and experts can use it to identify the exact position of the machine. Masking your IP means you are free to:
So a VPN is used to offer a second level of security?
Surprisingly, the answer is generally no. Where say a burglar alarm is a secondary level of security after solid entry doors with complex locks, most of the data which makes up the net is not secured at all. Consequently, a VPN may be the only decent protection, if used. [Of course, there are lots of sites such as those for banks or those selling products and services with their own security in place, although the average person can’t really assess how good that actually is.]
Why is the internet in general so insecure?
Largely this is because when it was first created the focus was on maintaining a reliable service, so troubleshooting to avoid data delivery failure was a huge priority. Security concerns in the early days were, at best, an afterthought, if they were considered at all; and things are not that much different in the twenty-first century.
You may be surprised to learn that even the most modern of web applications, like Facebook for example, are still built around that original approach, so there are obvious weak spots which make it easy for Internet bandits and pirates to break through and cause havoc.
So how does a VPN work?
Basically using a VPN means your data is being transmitted undercover, travelling through a private channel and encrypted to boot. Some VPNs exist specifically for a company to use between its branches and departments, others are available to any member of the public who wants to protect themselves when using everything from online banking and shopping to social media platforms – either on a public network or at home with a wired connection.
– VPN providers create tunnel which transmit the information from your device of choice, be it laptop, desktop, smartphone or tablet, to their own data service centre. [Note this is different from the non-VPN route of device to end user address.] The information is encrypted by your browser, then the VPN app, and then sent to their centre by secure tunnel to be partly decrypted, before being sent through another secure tunnel to the final destination you specified.
– Your IP address (which tells someone in the know an awful lot about you) is masked – replaced temporarily by a different IP owned by the VPN company. This is often from a different country. Sometimes IP addresses located anywhere are shared randomly, but some companies allow the customer to make the choice themselves. This is helpful if say you wish to present a UK IP address as being American and get access to sites which insist all users are in the USA.
Free VPN vs. paid VPN services – is there any real difference in quality?
There’s a reason for the saying ‘you get what you pay for’, and that’s just as true in terms of VPN service providers as with anything else. While paid VPN options may well differ in terms of things like total data allowance per month, or average speed – basically pay more, get more, and faster – the most likely to offer a slow and patchy service are the free VPN providers. They also use a lot of ads to support the site. Free sites tend to offer just a couple of service centres too, which may not be in convenient locations for you.
Look for a paid service which offers a free trial so you can experiment for yourself and see if things seem viable before committing financially.
Are VPN services really needed if you can access a wired Internet connection outside of your home?
At home you don’t really bother too much, but while away then yes, it still pays to install and make use of a VPN network. This is largely down to it being impossible to know who say has access to a hotel’s Wi-Fi network. Additionally, unless each room has a dedicated subnet then there will be some element of network sharing.
Choosing a good VPN service
It may seem as easy as picking the VPN provider with the lowest fee or the best reviews, but this is a process which deserves some time and effort investing in research to make the best choice possible.
Not all VPN companies are as legitimate as you may imagine, so don’t be fooled.
#1 – Look for directories of recommended sites created by big name reviewers or names that you trust, or a list of top sites put together by experienced bloggers in the tech field.
#2 – Search Google for the names of a handful you have added to a shortlist. Are there lots of complaints? Are these complaints or concerns quite recent? How does the company react?
#3 – Are all your needs able to be met? A VPN service should tick all the boxes for the features you want when it comes to availability, speed, range of countries to choose IP from, reliability etc
#4 – Do they have a 100% no-logging policy? This is critical as although you are still protected from the net nasties out there a VPN service which records things like the sites you browse, data you send online, or locations you are traced to have access to the very information you are trying to keep 100% private!
#5 – Is it legal to use a VPN in your location? In many countries it is fine, but there are still enough who don’t legally allow it to cause concern. At the time of writing VPN use is considered illegal in Russia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China (most VPNs), Turkey, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates.) Using a VPN while living or travelling in such countries could lead to a very nasty surprise of, at best, a huge fee. Always check before travelling just to be sure.
#6 – What kind of speed is it capable of? Slow VPNs will easily become very frustrating, so if time is tight look at something like this Fastest VPN Guide for guided inspiration
#7 – Is there an automatic kill switch? This is a really good option as it helps protect you should the VPN connection fail for any reason. Remember the process that occurs when you use a VPN:
– The data you send initially is instantly encrypted by the VPN, and while still protected on the next leg of the journey, to the internet application destination, further protection may come in the form of https encryption.
– As your IP address is masked a fake address is seen and recorded by the destination application upon arrival.
– The VPN connection drops.
– The Internet automatically jumps in to help and in seconds has reconnected you – but to the application directly rather than the VPN.
– The internet application may automatically log this IP address too, as well as your data being open to hackers browsing local Wi-Fi at and around your location.
A VPN kill switch effectively shuts down the internet connection instantly should the VPN connection fail, protecting you from any level of exposure. There are plenty of VPN services which offer this invaluable option it really isn’t worth bothering with one which doesn’t.
#8 – Is there a dedicated VPN option for iOS and Android device users?
This should be standard these days, but it is always worth checking, just in case.
#9 – Does the VPN service provider promise 24/7 100% access to all areas of the net?
You may assume that this is standard, so be reassured if it is used to promote a service, however, it is pretty much impossible to fulfil this kind of promise. In general, it is best to be wary of any provider who does make this kind of offer. The reason why this is a goal that cannot ever be met is down to the fact that some websites have top-notch developers working on ways to identify, and subsequently block, those connecting via a VPN. This doesn’t mean that they will discover exactly who you are, or your IP address, but technical signs of a VPN in use – such as the slightly longer time it takes to transfer the information packets, means they can detect a proxy user.
Not all websites will make such an effort to keep, what are effectively trespassers, off the party guest list; it tends to depend on what the content on offer is. For example, the BBC offers UK players an online catch up TV hub, which they technically should own a TV license to access. Naturally, they couldn’t be blamed for wanting to stop those living outside of the TV licensing region (i.e. non-UK) for watching content funded by others, so they tend to automatically block VPN users. (UK based VPN users may need to disable their system while using BBC iPlayer at home or find they are also blocked.)
The time and effort invested in choosing the best VPN for your needs is well worth the effort whether you are looking to simply protect your personal and financial data, or wish to access sites your current location bars you from doing.