Tech & Cheese

Technology. Explained.

Internet, Privacy & Security, Utilities

What is a VPN and how to choose one

Secure online data with VPN

VPN meaning: what is a VPN?

First of all, let’s go straight to the point: what is a VPN? VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. We’re going to see exactly how it works and how to choose a VPN.

A VPN extends a private network connection to a public network (Internet, for what concerns our purpose). This way, when two or more devices exchange data (even through a public network), it is just like if they were directly connected to each other. Thus, when using a VPN, benefits are a stronger privacy protection and additional security: personal identity won’t be revealed nor will the location be shared with others. At the same time, no one can access data while it’s being transferred (at least if VPN is reliable and used correctly, more on that later). This is the reason why people use VPN services for torrenting or general P2P data transfer. This way data cannot be monitored.

Virtual Private Networks, in some cases, are also used to be able to access content that is blocked in specific zones. This is particularly true for countries with strong censorship or for geo-restricted services. An example of this would be using a VPN to watch Netflix (not accessible from some countries at the time of writing).

Advertisers, services and users are not able to see your real IP address or location when you are using a Virtual Private Network. Instead, all of your traffic is going through the provider’s servers and they will se the servers’ IP address and location.

Below is an example scheme that shows a VPN. In the figure, a remote user is securely accessing a public network. This user may be accessing a corporate network while not at the office. A VPN establishes a point-to-point connection by using virtual traffic encryption. This traffic encryption is often referred to as the tunnel (from here, the word tunneling).

 

VPN example scheme

VPN example: overview

How to choose a VPN

“How do I choose the best VPN?” is the question that may arise at this point, and is not an easy one to answer completely. The reason is that every person has different needs and technical skills, so what is the best-ever VPN for a person may not be the best solution for another one. For this and other reasons, I will try to keep this guide as easy as I can and to give as general an answer as possible, so that anyone will be able to choose a VPN for his/her specific needs.

Free vs Paid VPN services

Before moving to VPN description, I really feel like I should be spending a few words about free vs paid VPNs. When it comes to choosing a VPN, you really get what you pay for. Yes, there are some free VPN services out there, but as a general rule, keep in mind that they are not as reliable as paid ones. Plus, if you use a VPN, you probably want to stay secure and keep your data safe. You probably wouldn’t rely on free services for this kind of stuff, right? At least, I wouldn’t.

I’m not saying you should not use free VPN services at all, they are still great for some purpose and can be a fast way to access some content without involving any money. The point is that no one is going to offer you awesome services for free.

If you want to check out some free VPN services, these are among the most common ones:

  1. CyberGhost (easy to use, customizable and great for streaming)
  2. TunnelBear (probably more user-friendly than others)
  3. OpenVPN (great reputation and easy to set up)
  4. VPNBook (for more advanced users)

VPN trustworthiness

Now THIS is what should be your main concern. Of course there are no foolproof services, and people constantly develop complex algorithms for trying to monitor VPN traffic. Furthermore, if VPN is not set up correctly, traffic could be intercepted (Tor, even though one of the best anonymity services out there, it is often not used correctly). This, though, does not mean that all VPN providers should be the same to you.

Things to look for in a VPN

When trying to look for the best VPN out there, the following characteristics are the main ones you should be looking at.

Logs

The VPN provider is going to be the connection between you and the final device. “Man in the middle” is what we may call this position inside the network. Since all of your traffic is redirected through the VPN servers, it could be logged, too. Depending on policy, logs may be kept for different reasons. This browsing data may even be sold to third parties in some cases, while usually is only tracked for legal purposes. If your main concern is privacy, you should choose a service that clearly states that no activity logs are kept. Sometimes services are not really clear at explaining this, so look for the details.

Jurisdiction rules

Do you think a US-based service is more reliable than others just because most internet services come from there? Think again. With all the surveillance programs out there and the numerous governments scandals (NSA & Co.), it is no wonder that one should be concerned about jurisdiction. Countries that spy on their citizens and on each other are referred to as the five eyes (or nine, or fourteen, more info here). So another thing to look at is where a provider’s servers are placed. Countries with limited internet freedom should be avoided too, as a general rule.

Protocols

The bottom line here is that you should choose a VPN capable of connecting to the server using OpenVPN. If you look carefully, you should find this kind of information on the provider’s website. Other protocols may not be suited for privacy protection.

Payment methods

It is not hard to imagine that if you pay using your credit card or bank account (and other similar “personal” methods), more information about your identity are going to be registered. Again, if privacy is your main concern, you should be paying with Bitcoin, Litecoin, gift cards, cash or so. This way the only information registered is your e-mail address (worth to mention: Mullvad doesn’t even ask for it).

A word or two on geographic restriction

If you are looking for a way to access geo-blocked conten, you probably don’t need to be so strict about the requirements above. In this case one important thing to look for is the exit node, since it determines the country that you are interested to appear to be in. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to neglect all the other aspects though.

VPN services

At this point, the only thing you need to do is start looking for all the services available out there. Among them, you will certainly be able to choose the one that best fits your needs. For this purpose, you can download a huge list of VPNs from these links:

NOTE: the files provided above are from That One Privacy Site: an awesome website about VPNs (they even made a chart for color blind people!). If you want to dive deeper into VPN details, I definitely suggest you check it out!

Some of the most common VPN services are the following (note that I’m not saying these are the best ones):

  1. BTGuard
  2. NordVPN
  3. AirVPN
  4. blackVPN
  5. Mullvad
  6. Private Internet Access

As always, for any feedback or question, leave a comment below 🙂 if this post was helpful, please share!

Leave a Reply