Best VPN’s & Why You Should Be Using One.
We all know the times of simple Internet surfing are long gone now. Since devices connected to the Internet have been playing a larger role in our lives for the past two decades, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic increasing our usage of these devices, topics such as privacy and information security are ever so present under the spotlight.
How to further protect your data? How to preserve your identity and property? Moreover, how difficult it is to do so?
For a few years now, VPNs have been of great help to answer these questions. So, what is it and why should you be using one?
What Is a VPN?
Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, were developed to provide safe access from companies or government’s resources to remote users, that means people doing homeoffice or branch offices. With the remote component making sensitive data vulnerable, VPNs were developed to encrypt and shield the connection between users and servers, protecting data to and from users.
How Do You Benefit From a VPN
Every device has an IP address. When you access a website, you transfer data to their server, and the server transfers data back to your device, which makes the website show up on your screen. However, when your device sends a request to the server, it sends your IP address and other data along.
That wouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re using public Wi-Fi in an airport or cafe to do online banking, a black-hat hacker can easily tap into the network and intercept data from the exchange between your device and the server. This would give away your credentials, such as your account number; e-mail and passwords.
Not only that, but websites track user’s data using “cookies”, in order to study who’s visiting their websites. This helps companies with marketing strategies and governments with surveillance. It’s all right until you see super weird and specific adds popping up on the edges of your browser or social network feed. Furthermore, there’s also the possibility of governments abusing surveillance tools, which infringes your rights to privacy.
A VPN helps to shield you from a third party peeking into your online activities.
In addition to helping protect your connection, a VPN also allows you to bypass geological limitations. Do you want to watch a show or movie unavailable in your country through your streaming platform? By using a VPN, you’ll be able to access restricted content to your location by making it look like your device is in another country.
Another upside of bypassing geo limitations is that you may save money when doing it by finding better prices when booking flights or hotels while searching “from another country”, and a VPN might even help to prevent throttling of your Internet traffic by your ISP.
But How Does It Do That?
On simple terms, when you activate a VPN, a direct connection is established between your device and the VPN’s server. When data is sent from your device, it is encrypted and travels to this server through your Internet provider. When the data arrives at the VPN’s, it’s decrypted and sent out by the server to the destination, say, the website you want to access.
When the website receives your data, your IP address says you live in another country, so the website will send back data to the VPN’s server, which will encrypt it to send it back to your actual IP address, so in the end, the only ones who’ll know your IP address are you and your VPN provider. That’s a tunnelling protocol. It shields your information by tunnelling it directly to the destination, so even if it’s intercepted, it will be a mess of random characters that requires a long time to figure out.
The “IP masking” is how you access restricted content: the web site’s contents might change from one geological location to another. Therefore, if you live in Italy and access a website, it might display an “Italian version”; so, by masking your IP with a VPN to send out an Australian IP, you’ll see the “Australian version” of that website.
What’s The Catch?
The promise of instant total protection and privacy isn’t as easy as it sounds. Despite the protection offered by VPNs, there are other software’s that can track your data regardless, such as browsers’ and social networks’ scripts and cookies; search engines and more. Regarding this, it’s not up to a VPN to do the trick, so it’s up to yourself going against trackers with blockers and other software.
Moreover, the connection may only be encrypted from your device to the VPN’s server; meaning from your private network to the server. So, as it leaves the VPN’s server, it may be decrypted in order for a website to “understand” what your device is requiring, so anyone attacking the website you’re accessing, instead of individually attacking you, will be able to track you.
Finally, some webpages or online services will lock you into not using VPNs. It depends on your area’s law and the juridical struggle between your VPN provider and the service in question, but while I bypassed Netflix’s geo limitation using NordVPN; when using ExpressVPN to do the trick in Amazon Video, it showed a message asking me to turn the VPN off.
These are not direct flaws in using a VPN. The actual flaw in using one is going cheap: free VPN services seldom offer good service. It’s so because some VPN providers may sell your data to make their profit, and when cornered by law enforcement into giving up your data within the logs they will probably be keeping, they are likely to hand over your information. Not limited to that, but a cheaper service might employ poorer security tools to protect you and others. As the saying goes: when the product is free, you are the product.
Should I Use a VPN?
Generally speaking, yes.
Despite the catches I’ve listed here, the most damage a VPN can cause is if you don’t pick a good provider. About third party limitations such as Amazon Video’s, they may be bypassed depending on your VPN provider, so I recommend you to scout out well a provider and take in consideration what services you’ll be using with the VPN active, in order not to hire something that ends up being not ideal for you.
So, the advantages of using a VPN outweigh the disadvantages. If you travel a lot, constantly being in airports; if you use your university’s or local cafe’s Wi-Fi; if you want to access content restricted to your location (and potentially save some bucks while doing so) or be able to download legal backups of movies or video games, a VPN might help you greatly.
Even if you don’t travel a lot or use public hotspots, you might benefit from the higher degree of privacy enabled by VPNs, which will protect all your network traffic instead of just HTTP or SOCKS from your browser, as a proxy server does.
Which One Should I Pick?
There are thousands of VPN providers, many free; some with paid subscriptions, such as CyberGhost, Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear (the latter offers paid subscription, as well). However, as said previously, you should benefit more from a paid VPN.
That is because even if the provider is reliable when handling your data, the company might not be able, in juridical senses, to infer with companies responsible for services in order to unlock content, for instance.
The two paid VPNs under the spotlight are ExpressVPN and NordVPN. Both are pretty similar in terms of speed and prices; despite ExpressVPN being a dollar more expensive than Nord, it gives you three months free with the annual plan, so if you’re going for the middle term run, it might suit you better; while NordVPN gets you $2.99 per month if you’re willing to pay upfront for three years of service, which isn’t so great if you want to be flexible with your commitment to the company.
Customer service is difficult to track, but both companies respond well regarding their 30 days refund policy. Some instances of customer service are more favourable to ExpressVPN, nonetheless.
About their commitment to the service provided: ExpressVPN is one of the few VPNs able to bypass China’s Internet censorship, commonly referred around in Internet forums as having being banned from China; while NordVPN was hacked in March 2018, the server contained no user activity logs, so there was no information to be stolen.
Again, whichever service you go for, the recommendation is that you set your priorities straight: which restricted content will you want to access? In how many devices are looking to use a VPN? Which consumer strategy seems more like you: a short, mid or long-term commitment to the company? Only then you’ll be able to choose a VPN provider tailored to your needs.