Privacy and protecting your online activity has gotten a great deal more attention over the last few days thanks to some legislation in the United States Congress. The way I understand the legislation as it currently exists is that your ISP will be able to sell data about your internet usage to third parties. While there are already plenty of services selling data about the way you use your credit cards, your ISP, whether the one in your home or the network powering your smartphone data plan, knows exactly where you are when you do something. This makes the data about your online behavior even more valuable from a marketing perspective.
Even if you aren’t concerned with your ISP selling data about your usage, there are other reasons to consider using a VPN, which I’ll go into below.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN allows you to send and receive data across public networks, like your internet service provider (ISP), as if your computer was actually connected to a private network and receiving the benefit of the security policies of that private network.
Many people who work from home use a VPN client application like Global Connect or Cisco AnyConnect to access the corporate network remotely. This means the ISP can’t see what you are doing for your employer and your employer can restrict or provide access to all the things you’d normally have access to if you were working from one of their offices.
For all of us who have personal devices like laptops, desktops, smartphones and tablets, there are services you can subscribe to that give this same type of VPN without being an employee of a big company.
Why use a VPN?
The Internet isn’t a very secure place. It’s estimated that only 10% of websites use the HTTPS to encrypt traffic between your device and the website. For the websites that do have HTTPS enabled, it is still possible for the ISP you connect through, whether it’s the one at your house, the cell network your phone uses, or a public hotspot, to see which sites your device visits without knowing for sure what you do once you get to those sites.
With a properly configured VPN, unless your ISP has installed some kind of spyware on your device (which has happened with cell phone carriers in the past) the ISP will have no idea which sites you are visiting or what you are doing there.
Choosing a VPN service?
While it’s also possible to to configure your own VPN by setting one up on a server in a data center and then connecting to that server using client software on your home computer just like big companies do, I’m guessing if you know how to do that you stopped reading back at the first paragraph. That’s more involved than I’m going to get into here because you really need to get all the configuration right in order to make sure your VPN works properly. From what I can tell, even companies who specialize in this don’t get it right all the time.
The biggest factor in choosing a VPN service provider is to have trust that the company can and will do what they promise. A poorly configured VPN can actually put you at greater risk than not using one at all because a poorly configured VPN often gives outside users access to both your device and your home network. I tend to distrust the free VPN solutions at this point because most of them involve some level of selling data to advertisers.
Rather than a “best of” list featuring VPN services to use, I’ll give you a list of VPN suggestions that I’ve seen multiple security experts mention over the last few days. Pricing seems to range from about $40 to $80 paid annually with the ability to connect 5 devices simultaneously.
These are the VPN services I’ve seen most frequently mentioned as I was doing research this week.
Using a VPN is not Anonymous
If complete anonymity is your goal, a VPN doesn’t solve that. You will probably still pay the VPN company with a credit card, which means your name and billing address are in their customer database. There have been accounts of VPN services turning over names of customers who were using torrent sites to pirate content, for instance. For more anonymity, paying with a Bitcoin account gets you closer. Using something like Tor to anonymize your browsing habits will go even further to eliminate the possibility of connecting your online behavior with your real life existence.
It’s worth pointing out that Tor will absolutely make all browsing slower. It might also look suspicious to always use Tor from your home connection.
I haven’t reached a point where I feel like I need to be anonymous in what I’m doing online, but I know everyone has their own comfort level with that sort of thing.
Should you ever turn your VPN off?
While the companies who provide VPN service have all improved dramatically in terms of speed, I have found that any of the ones I tested definitely make aspects of web browsing slower. Some of them make streaming videos from sites like Netflix, Hulu, and other nearly impossible both because of the slowdown and because some of the streaming services block connections coming from known VPN IP addresses.
Like most security products, VPN usage involves tradeoffs between greater levels of security and greater levels of inconvenience. How much security and how much inconvenience you are willing to tolerate is a personal decision. If you want to have a greater level of security in your online browsing, with less ability for companies like your ISP to build a marketing profile around what you do online and potentially sell data about what you do, using a VPN from a reputable vendor is a good line of defense.