What Is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a network technology which provides you with additional levels of security and privacy to your online activities. It essentially allows you to create and utilize a secure connection (e.g. surfing the internet) while remaining anonymous and untraceable to hackers by using encryption in your connection.
It works to protect your personal information the same way a home security system protects your valuables.
Why use a VPN?
A VPN gives you internet access through servers run by the VPN provider. Every data exchange between your devices; computer, tablet, smartphone is through a secure encryption protocol. Case in point, this is what you get:
- Anonymous internet browsing from both your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and government.
- Grants you access to restricted websites blocked by any institution.
- Through geo-spoofing, you can bypass geo-restrictions on certain websites.
- Provides you with additional level of security when using a public network connection.
- Protect you against hackers when using a public network.
- Enables safe and secure P2P downloads.
Typically, most if not all VPN providers require you to sign up before you’re granted access to the service and this usually costs somewhere between $3-$10 a month. Most VPN providers offer discounts on annual or biannual subscriptions.
Ps: even though you get a secure internet connection with a VPN you still need your ISP to provide you with internet access.
Commercial Vs. Corporate VPN
Initially, the VPN technology was to be used to grant remote employees secure access to corporate intranet thereby giving them access to corporate assets when they were absent in the office. Even though VPNs are used as they were originally intended, they have now been widely accepted as commercial VPNs for providing anonymous secure internet connection via their servers.
This guide and VPNtrends will discuss the details of commercial VPN service providers. We will be using the generic term VPN to refer to commercial VPN providers and the corporate ones. However, with that being said the underlying technology is similar but still different.
Is it Legal to Use a VPN?
VPNs are considered legal and usually fall under the doctrine of the right of privacy for a citizen and to the best of our knowledge, they’re acceptable everywhere.
Countries with restrictive political and socio-economic practices like the people’s republic of China and Iran don’t look kindly to unrestricted and unaccountable internet access. Some of them have banned the VPN services entirely—locally and overseas.
However, even though China has one of the most complex censorship programs they are only partially able to successfully block VPN services. In addition, to date, we haven’t heard of anyone getting into serious trouble for using a VPN.
In some regions, like Europe, terrorism has escalated the adoption of a variety of surveillance laws. For instance, VPN providers in the UK and France are required by law to log user activities which defeat the purpose of using a VPN. If you’re looking for total privacy and anonymity, then watch out for such countries and read the fine print.
Where do I get a VPN?
There is a wide range of VPN service providers available on the market and like with any other products they have their own upsides and downsides. Getting a VPN is a matchmaking process; depending on what you need and what best addresses your needs.
We’ve categorized our VPNs depending on the country, the cost, devices and we also made best recommendations. So how do you decide?
Cost: The price tag on your VPN does matter but more often than not you will get great discounts for bi-annual and annuals subscriptions.
Speed and Performance: Data is encrypted as it is exchanged between your computer and the VPN server which could compromise speed but it shouldn’t be anything drastic.
Privacy: For additional privacy consider a VPN but you should note that there is a difference between privacy and anonymity. We’ll explain on this later on.
Security: This means protecting your personal information and preventing hackers from tracking your online activity and this is something you should strongly consider. It is thought of as an added feature to VPNs.
Adoption by a country and number of respective servers: This serves to boost speed and performance to an optimum level. Always go for the ones with multiple global servers.
Cross-platform compatibility: Most VPN providers are cross-platform compatible with the major platforms such OS X, iOS, Windows, Android etc.
Extra features: This could include a VPN kill switch and a DNS leak protection.
Cloud Storage: We all love extra memory space especially if it’s accessible from anywhere.
Support: You should look at customer support and feedback especially if VPN is a second language to you. Most VPN providers pride themselves in providing excellent support and usually have a timely response rate.
Free Trials anyone?
Most reliable VPN providers allow you to try out their service free of charge for a couple of days so you can get a feel for it but this is nothing to worry about. We make it easy for you by doing comparison reviews and make recommendations depending on your needs, country, performance and price.
Free VPN Providers
There are a variety of free VPN service providers but they usually aren’t that reliable and come with restrictions. Additionally, you can’t trust them not sell your data.
The cost of operating a VPN service is usually expensive so you have to consider what they get from it. Remember the saying if it’s free then you’re the product?
However, with that said, there are a couple of free VPN service providers that are worth their salt; CyberGhost is one of them. It does come with restrictions but for the casual user, it’s more than enough. They get funding through their premium packages.
Another good alternative is VPN Gate which is mostly run by volunteers.
You should note that free VPNs don’t come close to the reliability, speed, performance and privacy benefits offered by their commercial counterparts.
Considering the average price of a VPN in a month is that of a beer then it wouldn’t hurt getting the paid package.
Do I get anonymity with a VPN?
Unfortunately, no. Your VPN service provider could identify you and track your internet activities. Most VPN services are privacy-oriented but that’s just about what you get. Anonymity is not usually in the cards, just privacy.
Many VPN service providers promise privacy protection but if they log your activities then they can easily sell or hand the logs over to the government. Something worth mentioning is that no VPN service provider employee will risk going to jail or sabotage their business by protecting you—the customer. If they have the logs of your data, they can lawfully be forced to hand it over.
For absolute privacy, you require a no-log VPN service provider, but the thing is you can’t really be sure. The only choice you have is to take their word for it.
Choosing a VPN provider is a matchmaking process, it all points to trust. How do you find out the credibility of a VPN service provider? Take privacy-oriented VPN service providers as an example.
Their entire business apparatus is built on privacy policies and if it were to be found out that they don’t deliver on that premise…Well, they’re done for. They could also find themselves in court since they can be sued by their customers.
Your VPN service provider will be able to track your online activities in real time even if they don’t log your activities. This is usually for technical support and troubleshooting—especially in the case where no logs are stored.
Whether your VPN service provider stores logs or not they are able to track your online browsing. Most VPN providers that don’t keep logs usually promise not to track your online activities in real time unless it’s for troubleshooting. You should note that it can be legally demanded that your VPN service provider keeps logs in most countries and can issue a gag order preventing them from notifying you.
However, this is usually a targeted approach. Many VPN service providers will happily comply in an effort to nab any pedophiles. This way, only specific criminals that are being looked into by the authorities need to worry.
Shared IP VPN providers
This is usually the case with a provider looking to secure the privacy of their users—through a shared IP. Basically, this means that a lot of users are allocated the exact same IP address. Subsequently, being able to match a specific internet activity with a particular person is extremely difficult even when the providers are forced to do this. This adds to the privacy problem we had mentioned above.
Detailed overview of ‘No Logs’ and Connection vs Usage logs
When your typical VPN service provider states that they don’t keep any logs this means that they don’t keep “usage logs” but “connection logs” are kept.
Usage logs: like the name suggests, this usually mean they track your online activities including your browsing history which makes them potentially damaging logs.
Connection logs: this involves logging the metadata of the user but doesn’t include the usage. What is logged depends on your provider but usually includes time of connection, duration of the connection, the frequency of connection and so forth. They justify this as a necessary evil to help you when you encounter technical problems and in the case of abuse.
Generally, we are not too concerned by the level of log-keeping employed but if paranoia is second nature then you have something to worry about. Theoretically, it is possible that those logs can be used to target a user with specific browsing patterns using an end-to-end attack.
If you’re looking for absolute privacy, then you should consider VPN service providers that don’t keep any logs or “no log” providers. You should note that a lot of people claim it isn’t possible to operate a VPN service without logging data. They claim that companies who do this are disingenuous.
Compulsory Data Retention
However, with that said, you’ll need to know the location of your privacy-oriented VPN provider so you can find out the laws governing it. In Europe and other countries, it is a requirement that communications companies keep logs for a defined period of time. Whether or not the laws are applicable to VPN provider is yet to be determined. For instance, Netherlands, Europe, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Romania are quite popular regions for a VPN providers since they aren’t lawfully required to keep logs.
If a VPN provider is situated in a country where it is mandated to keep logs, then it will have no choice but have to comply with the legal statutes stipulated.
Anonymous payment for VPN subscription
There are some VPN providers that take privacy protection an extra mile by allowing anonymous payments. This is commonly used with cryptocurrencies, usually Bitcoin. A notable company is Private Internet Access which accepts purchases through anonymous store cards.
This will give an additional privacy blanket since the VPN provider can’t obtain your real name, street address or banking information. However, they will know your IP address. VPN providers that accept anonymous payments take their privacy policies serious and you can use this as an indicator. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees but for those that don’t accept they are not worth their salt.
You should note that though bitcoin provides you some level of anonymity it isn’t inherently anonymous. But if you take the right steps then you could be totally anonymous. We set up a guide for buying bitcoins so you can pay your VPN provider anonymously.
VPN through TOR
Using a TOR network will essentially protect your IP address even when you’re using a VPN service provider since they won’t be able to see your IP address.
When you sign up through a TOR network and pay through an anonymous payment channel you will be truly anonymous. But there is a downside, this combines two networks and will cause you to surf the internet at slower than normal speeds.
A most notable example of a VPN service that supports TOR is NordVPN.
Safety provided through a VPN
To achieve a high degree of privacy when browsing the internet, then having a good and reliable “no logs” VPN will suffice. It will shield from government surveillance programs, hinder your ISP from tracking your internet activity, prevent copyright owners from tracking you and if you happened to do something illegal it can give you some protection.
All this is nice and good, but if the authorities namely the police or NSA are on your tail it and have committed their time and resources to identify you then you’re out of luck.
Kill switches and IP leaks
A properly working VPN will completely obscure your IP address from any site you connect to. But for a number of reasons, this doesn’t always happen. Basically, whenever a website can see your true IP address if you’re using a VPN service then you must have an IP leak.
If you would like to know if there is an IP leak, then you will have to visit ipleak.net. Subsequently, if you visit the site and can view your ISP’s name or your own IP address from their page then there is an IP leak in your connection. However, you should note that IPv6 leaks are undetectable on ipleak.net but are detectable on test-ipv6.com.
Another similar problem is a VPN dropout. Like every other technological innovation, your VPN will fail at some point. This will be a rare situation if you have an excellent and reliable VPN provider but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If you maintain your internet connection preceding a VPN dropout, then your true IP address may be exposed.
A VPN kill switch will handle that pesky little problem gracefully. It can either observe your internet connection and shut it down in the event of a dropout or utilizes firewall protocols and prohibits any data exchange between your computer and the internet if it’s not through a VPN connection.
The kill switch is normally included in the VPN software provided by most providers. There are also 3rd party options available to you.
Limitations of a VPN
A VPN will grant you useful security and privacy protection when you’re browsing the internet but you should know the limits of a VPN.
As we previously discussed, anonymity is not in the cards when using a VPN. If the authorities are invested in locating you and tracking your online behavior a VPN won’t do you much good. Any provider who promises you anonymity through a VPN is selling you a load of BS.
A VPN does help minimize website tracking by hiding your IP address but this is only partially successful. This is because tracking is usually done by analytics and marketing companies by employing novel technology such as cookies and browser fingerprinting. This makes it hard for a VPN to help you but various browser add-ons will get the job done.
VPN guide for beginners: final thoughts
A few dollars a month will grant you access to a reliable and versatile VPN service which will greatly improve your online experience, minimize attacks and tracking by hackers and give you an umbrella of protection from the government and your ISP.
We hope that through this guide you will be better informed and be able to make competent decisions about your internet browsing and whether or not you need a VPN.