What Is a VPN and Why Do I Need One? title image

What Is a VPN and Why Do I Need One?

Note: This article is intended for people currently residing in the United States. The laws governing the use of encryption products may differ in other countries. The advice in this article is intended for the average Internet user. If you are outside the United States and/or are worried about being targeted by state-sponsored actors (i.e. government agencies and employees), the advice presented in this article may not be sufficient for your needs.

The public Internet is the greatest communication tool since the invention of the public telephone network. It provides a 24-hour connection to the entire world. It links you to everyone and everything you could possibly want and need. But this convenience comes at a price – a lack of privacy.

With the recent bill letting Internet service providers sell your browsing history without your permission, there’s been a groundswell of interest in consumer privacy. People are now realizing that they must be proactive in protecting themselves; it’s no longer safe to assume that no one is watching you.

Enter the VPN, or virtual private network.

What Are VPNs For?

A VPN uses encryption to create a secure channel over the Internet. Not using a VPN is like having everyone in the world reading over your shoulder.

Let’s say you work for a corporation. Maybe your job involves lots of travel, or you have flextime and frequently work from home. Maybe you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection in a restaurant or store. You need to communicate with the home office, but you can’t risk having your employer’s trade secrets being spied on and stolen.

How Do VPNs Work?

When you use the Internet, your data is separated into pieces called packets before it gets sent to its destination. Each packet contains your IP address and the IP address of its destination, like a snail mail letter has destination address and a return address. VPNs use a process called tunneling to disguise your traffic as it travels across the Internet. During tunneling, each packet is encapsulated into another packet.

Here are some common tunneling methods:

  • SOCKS5 – this protocol routes your data through a proxy server.
  • PPTP – Point to Point Tunneling Protocol; an older tunneling protocol included with Windows, considered to be easy to configure.
  • L2TP – Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol; it uses security certificates or a shared encryption key. It is much more secure than SOCKS5 and PPTP.

Tunneling by itself doesn’t make your data truly private. Because of this, tunneling is paired with security procedures and protocols to make sure that the data you’re sending is kept private and that only authorized people see it.

VPNs use a variety of encryption methods, some of which are more secure than others:

  • TLS – Transport Layer Security; communicates with servers using digital certificates.
  • IPSec – Internet Protocol Security; a series of encryption protocols partnered with L2TP.
  • AES – Advanced Encryption Standard; this encryption protocol is used by many institutions, including the U.S. government.
  • OpenVPN – Not just encryption, but an open source VPN program that includes its own tunneling and encryption protocols. This is the most recent and fastest method of setting up a VPN.

Your data is only encrypted on its journey from you to the provider.

diagram showing how tunneling and VPNs work - a laptop connects to a VPN tunnel which runs through a cloud representing the Internet - the VPN tunnel connects to a VPN server which leads to a website

When using a VPN, an observer won’t see your original IP address. Instead, they will see the IP address of your VPN provider.

Which VPN Should I Pick?

There are many, many VPNs on the market, some of which are free. Finding a VPN is easy; finding a good one is not. The best VPNs are paid services. The free ones often aren’t safe; they have little to no security and may harbor malware, not to mention the fact that they may be selling your data to third parties.

These were the requirements that I had for a VPN service to be included in this post:

  • Doesn’t keep logs of your activity.
  • Doesn’t outsource its tracking activities to third parties, thus negating the purpose of a private connection.
  • A “kill switch” – should the VPN suddenly fail, your Internet activity would pause.
  • Support for Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS.

logo for CyberGhost VPN

CyberGhost

Free Version: Yes
Price: $6.99 per month for one device, $10.99 per month for up to five devices
Platform: Windows (Vista, 7, 8, 10), MacOS X (10.7 and later), iOS (9 and later), Android (4.0 and later), Linux (any version that supports OpenVPN, PPTP, IPSec or L2TP)
Security: AES 256-bit

CyberGhost has a very user-friendly interface. The free version only operates on Wi-Fi connections. The paid versions will also protect you on mobile networks, work with streaming video services, and let you choose your own VPN server. Note that the kill switch only works on Windows and Mac; on other platforms, your Internet connection will continue without protection.

ExpressVPN logo

ExpressVPN

Free Version: No
Price:  $12.95 per month, $59.95 for six months, $99.95 per year
Platform: Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10), MacOS X (10.6 and later), iOS (8, 9, 10), Android, Linux, Chromebook, Kindle Fire, Nook HD, Apple TV, Playstation (3 and 4), XBox (One and 360)
Security: AES 256-bit

First, the bad news: ExpressVPN is the most expensive option on this list. Also, it supports only up to three devices per subscription. Now, the good news: ExpressVPN supports an astonishing range of platforms; it’s the only one listed here that supports ebook readers and gaming consoles. In fact, there are even more supported devices listed on their website. This service may be better for an individual than a family. As with CyberGhost, the kill switch only works on Windows and Mac.

NordVPN logo

NordVPN

Free Version: Three-day free trial
Price: $11.95 per month, $42 for six months, $69 per year
Platform:Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10), MacOS X (10.10 and later), Android, iOS
Security: AES-256-SHA

NordVPN is one of the fastest VPNs available to the average user and one of the most popular and best-reviewed out there. You can use up to six devices per subscription. NordVPN has quite a few unique features: Double VPN (which routes your data through two VPN servers instead of the usual one) and Onion over VPN (routing your data through a VPN server, then through a Tor exit node).

logo for Private Internet Access VPN

Private Internet Access

Free Version: No
Price: 
$6.95 per month, $39.95 per year
Platform: 
Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10), MacOS X (10.8 and up), Linux (Ubuntu 12.04 and later), Android (2.2 and later), iOS (8.0 and later)
Security: 
OpenVPN, IPsec, PPTP, SOCKS5

Private Internet Access is operated by London Media, which is based in the U.S. You can use up to five devices per account. What makes this company stand out is their payment methods. In addition to standard payments such as credit cards, PayPal, and Bitcoin, you may also pay for this service through retail gift cards such as Starbucks and Costco.

VPN.AC logo

VPN.AC Secure Proxy

Free Version: No
Price: $9 per month, $24 for three months, $36 for six months, $58 per year
Platform: Windows (7, 8, 10), MacOS X (10.7 and later), Android (6.0 and later), iOS (9.3 and later)
Security: OpenVPN, AES, IPsec, PPTP, SecureProxy

VPN.AC was created by the Romanian company Netsec Interactive Solutions. This service provides excellent troubleshooting, even providing remote support through desktop sharing. There is a one-week trial version available for $2. VPN.AC can support up to six devices (although the trial version only supports three connections).

logo for ZenMate VPN

ZenMate

Free Version: Seven-day trial
Price: $8.99 per month, $44.99 for six months, $55.99 per year
Platform: Windows (7, 8, 10), MacOS X (10.10 and later), Android, iOS; browsers: Firefox, Chrome, Opera
Security: TLS 1.2, PFS, AES

Not only does ZenMate have versions for Windows and Mac desktops, Android devices, and iOS devices, it also has a browser extension for Firefox, Chrome and Opera. This is good for those of us who are using a device that isn’t based on Windows, Mac, or Android. But this version only works on your browser, not on anything else on your system. So, if you’re using the ZenMate browser extension only the traffic from your browser is being protected. Any other programs you’re using are unprotected.

It’s unrealistic to expect true anonymity and 100% privacy on the Internet. But with the proper precautions, you can significantly boost your safety.

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