What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a secure encrypted connection (or tunnel) between two end points, one of them being your PC and the other being a VPN server.
Why would i use a VPN?
To extend access to a trusted network from another geographical location, in order to securely access resources available from that remote network.
Take this example. You have a business laptop supplied by your employer and your job demands frequent business travel. In order to maintain productivity while away from the office you require unhindered access to corporate information, systems and resources remotely. Your laptop has a VPN client installed which will allow you to securely connect to the corporate network from anywhere in the world providing you have a reliable internet connection. While connected to the VPN you’ll have access to everything you would expect just as you would while sat in the office, local printers, network drives, intranet sites, HR and purchasing systems.
That’s a typical business example, but there are many benefits for personal use, which we will cover below.
What about Internet Privacy and Anonymity online?
There are growing concerns amongst many people that their personal privacy online is being infringed and eroded by various companies, organisations and governments. Personal data such as your name, age, address, e-mail, IP addresses, the sites you visit, the things you search for, the people you communicate with (by e-mail, instant messaging, skype, social media) is being monitored, logged, shared and even sold.
Companies will use this information to market and promote the sale of goods and services to you.
ISP’s will monitor the sites you visit and block access to adult content or sites deemed unsuitable by the government.
Law authorities will track your online movements, if they suspect your involved in cyber crime.
Government agencies will collect personal information to form mass non-targeted “blanket” surveillance.
This type of data is valuable, for a number of reasons, some are arguably in your best interests, others are unquestionably in the interests of those self-serving entities. Whatever your standpoint is, it’s happening, without your consent. If you care to retain any kind of privacy online, exercise your right to privacy by using a VPN.
Anonymity implies there is no connection whatsoever, to you personally, and your internet activities. Many VPN providers claim to offer anonymous VPN services, a claim which isn’t always true, as the VPN provider will hold some personally identifiable information about you, such as:
- The name, address and payment details attached to your account
- The existing IP address you used to connect to your account
- The new IP address provided to you when connecting to your account
- The dates, times, and duration of the connections made (session data) to the service from your account
Some level of information is persistent, and is required to operate the service, such as payment, contact and account details. Other dynamic information like IP addresses and session data can be logged temporarily to identify faults, and troubleshoot technical problems. Data logs are effectively bread crumbs of your online activity, subsequently they shouldn’t be retained for any length of time. Obviously any link between persistent and dynamic information would compromise your privacy and rule out any kind of anonymity whatsoever.
The policies maintained by the VPN provider which stipulate what personal identifiable information will be logged, retained and potentially disclosed is what you really need to base your selection criteria on. Ask yourself do you trust this company to take your privacy, security and data protection seriously?
The less information they hold about you and your online activity the better, because if they don’t have it, they can’t disclose it to any 3rd parties.
What about Security?
Hackers (should they intercept, steal or otherwise obtain) your personal information could potentially use it to empty your bank account, blackmail you, or sell your personal information on the black-market. Connecting to open wireless networks in public places (coffee shops, restaurants, airports, shopping centres) will expose you to a greater risk of this happening.
What about Internet Censorship?
Many VPN providers allow you to connect to a choice of servers located around the world. If your travelling it makes sense to connect to a geographically local VPN server, as the speed and latency of the connection will be much improved in doing so.
You may wish to connect to a VPN server in another country in order to access geo-blocked services or content. Geo-blocking is a form of internet censorship, which blocks or even hides certain sites from being accessed depending on your geographic location. Sites like BBC iPlayer, Hulu and Netflix all use Geo-blocking to restrict which countries can access their service.
Internet censorship is unfortunately prevalent in many countries, with access to certain websites restricted or entirely blocked, search results filtered, even content can be manipulated and doctored. These practices are a violation of user rights, and certainly stands against the foundations on which the internet was built. Internet Censorship is generally a direct result of political or social agendas, economic advantage, or local law and legislation. The magnitude of censorship or filtering occurring in any given country  has been classified and published by the OpenNet  initiative.
What to look for?
- Company values: Transparency, trust, ease of use, performance and reliability 
- VPN locations: Multiple VPN locations, geographically dispersed servers, locality of servers to where you will use the service, number of local servers available
- Speed and usage: How does the service perform for general browsing, video and voice calling, downloading. Are there any limits to how much you can download before they throttle bandwidth
- Client support: Check for VPN client availability across multiple platforms, Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Routers, NAS boxes etc…
- Cost and payment: How much does the service cost per month, what payment options are available, do they link payment details to account details?
- Using a VPN will deter all but the most committed snoopers, by placing a veil of privacy over your online activities.
- Using a VPN will unblock geo-restricted content and help circumvent internet censorship.
- Using a VPN will significantly enhance your security by encrypting and transmitting all traffic over a private tunnel between your device and the VPN server.
- Using a VPN won’t guarantee anonymity, there will always be breadcrumbs to follow in the form of IP addresses, payment and account details.
Leave your comments below, let me know if you use a VPN service and how you rate it.
Further Reading / References