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Back in high school, I was sitting in the computer lab and looked over to see a classmate on a Santa-themed shopping website. I asked him what, exactly, he was doing there, and he waved me over. In a random fill-in box about halfway down the page, he put in a URL that was blocked by the school’s filtering system. Suddenly, the shopping site disappeared, replaced by the blocked page.
Thus, I was introduced to the world of proxies.
Proxies are services that allow you to bypass filtering systems via misdirection. Rather than going directly to www.beardsandhats.com, which could be blocked by some sort of organization of hatless, clean-shaven citzens, an employee who wants to browse the many, many options available to them at the B&H website would have to go to a different site, one that loads the site you’re looking for within itself, keeping the filter from activating. Sometimes they’re clear about what they are; other times they pretend to be Santa-themed shopping websites.
But let’s be clear: Proxies are not safe. If you just want to look at a few websites, then you’re probably fine, but if you intend to put any personal information or passwords or anything else, do not use a proxy. Since proxies are usually free, they make money by either replacing the page’s original ads with their own or doing more nefarious things, like breaking encryption and snooping on your browsing habits.
(There is a downside to “free.”)
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is more than just a proxy, and it has uses beyond just bypassing your high school’s ridiculous ban on cat videos. At its core, a VPN is basically a super-secret network that sits on top of a public network, one that connects people securely all around the world and keep others out.
This has numerous uses, including many enterprise solutions, but we’re focused now on its benefits to you, a person who is tired of sitting at Starbucks and worrying about whether the Mr.-Robot-looking fellow in the corner has compromised the network and is watching your every digital move.
Now, it’s worth noting that the use of HTTPS (which can be forced using browser extensions like the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “HTTPS Everywhere”) will help in situations like this, as it encrypts your actual session with an email client, social media service, retailer, etc. More and more of the Web has turned to this more-secure method of page display, but it’s not perfect. Certificates might be out of date or tricks might be used to otherwise break the security without giving you any indication that it has happened. Someone snooping on a network will also be able to see the domain names of the sites you are visiting, even if they can’t see what you do at the domain names.
A VPN will bypass this issue entirely. Basically, a VPN provider sets up servers in various cities/states/countries and connects you directly to those servers. Once connected, you are no longer doing anything on the network to which you’re attached; instead, everything you do on your computer in Brooklyn (or wherever) is taking place on this server in the Netherlands (or wherever). You create an encrypted digital tunnel. Anyone with access to a network who is watching the information from your computer will see a whole lot of information going to and from another location, but they won’t be able to learn anything about what is happening within that information stream.
To use a VPN is to put a lot of trust into the company that runs said VPN. You may be masking your information from some prying eyes, but the VPN service itself can potentially see what you’re doing, depending on its own methods.
But what it can see is a little less important than what it stores. Ideally, if you’re trying to avoid having the things you do be easily seen, then you don’t want any record of that information. Well… because some VPNs keep records of traffic, usage timestamps, bandwidth usage, IP addresses, and/or DNS requests, or domains, whereas others keep no information at all. The latter is obviously preferable, and you should always thoroughly research any provider you might be considering.
I have used PrivateInternetAccess for the past couple of years—and I know a couple of my colleagues here have, as well. It’s fairly cheap and easy to use, and I have never been particularly concerned that the company has compromised my information, though this Github post did make me go home and check my own settings (though I signed up with one of my regular email addresses and pay with a credit card, you can use a burner email (or perhaps one created by a service such as Abine’s Blur, which I use on occasion) and pay using a variety of other, more anonymous methods.
But that service may not be right for you.
If you’re wondering what may be, I would definitively not recommend hitting up Google. “Best VPN 2017” will get you a whole bunch of hits, and some of them may be from publications you trust, but most won’t; you probably shouldn’t trust any of them. Click through to one of those lists, and you’ll often see that it’s topped by one particular service that’s all glittered up; there may even be an affiliate link for you to use.
Your best bet is an unbiased third party, one that gains nothing from your choice. That One Privacy Site, for example, has a comparison chart that is constantly updated with new information and, as of this writing, has as many as 53 data points on 179 different VPNs.
The reason it’s impossible for me (or anyone else) to tell you what to get is that everyone has different needs. Mine are simple, so a simple service like PIA is great for me. It doesn’t impact my speed in any noticeable way, and I mostly use it when I’m out of the house… though that may be about to change (see next section for more on that).
But a more complex and secure service will, by adding any technological hurdles to accessing your information, impact your browsing experience in some way. You’ll likely see slower speeds or potentially have difficulty accessing certain unsecured or other suspicious websites; alternatively, websites that track IP addresses specific to VPNs might find you suspicious. If you want an unaffected browsing experience (you just care about accessing the UK version of Netflix), then you’re not going to get the added security or anonymity features. Services may heavily favor one or the other, or try to strike a balance. But, you will need to decide on your own what you care about and select accordingly.
In another article, this might be the time where we tell you how to set up a VPN and get it working… but every single service treats this differently. Some services have good documentation and customer support; others have neither. Be sure to check on both before making a choice. Usually, you’ll just have to follow some basic instructions, putting information into dialogue boxes in some menu within the application. It may sometimes be complex, but it’s not really “hard.”
I believe in you.
A bill recently passed by Congress (and currently awaiting signature) removes restrictions put in place during the previous administration that would have required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to get your permission before selling your browsing information to advertisers. Google and Facebook have massive reach, sure, but it pales in comparison to what your ISP can see—which is literally everything that’s done without encryption. In this brave new world, the use of HTTPS is even more important and the use of VPNs even more crucial. Also of note is the Tor browser, which is, at its most basic, a self-contained VPN-of-sorts client that helps to hide your identity and affords you access to an entire section of the Internet that is otherwise inaccessible.
Using these tools will help keep your digital life private from Comcast and its ilk, which is something I think pretty much anyone (except Congress, apparently) can get behind. But it’s important to know that VPNs are not, by themselves, going to give you complete privacy, security, or anonymity from every watchful corporation. There is no single, fool-proof solution to those problems. VPNs can help you in these areas, and browsing with one on will help with some larger issues, like ISP tracking, but the desire to turn you into a saleable data point comes from all sides. You may be hiding your traffic from the ones who are looking directly at your information stream, but if you’re logged into Facebook with have no system to block their tracking cookies, there’s only so much an encrypted digital tunnel to Norway can do for you.
So, I leave you with this: Be cautious. Figure out what your wants and needs are, do your research on as-unbiased-as-possible third-party sites, and find out what service—if any—is right for you. And then check out our list of general security tips for using the Internet, because a multi-pronged approach will always be more effective.