As of now, Australia's telecommunications service providers have to store your metadata -- records of your phone and internet activity, which can reveal a huge amount of detail -- for two years. Approved government agencies can access that data without a warrant. It's not private information, either.
One way to circumvent Australia's draconian metadata retention scheme is to install and use a VPN on your phone and on your PC. Here's what a VPN is, what it does, and why -- and how -- you should get one.
What Is a VPN, And What Does It Do?
A VPN is a virtual private network. It's an entirely digital construct -- just 1s and 0s, your network traffic going through a few different hops before it reaches its destination, with no hardware required on your end. It is in theory a private and encrypted connection, one that can't be monitored by anyone attempting to snoop on your traffic. And because of that, the data that your ISP or telco retains will be effectively gibberish, without the detailed records of the specific IP addresses you're visiting and at what times -- only the connection from you to your VPN's server IP will be visible.
Using a VPN is a hell of a lot simpler than it used to be even a few short years ago. Any half-modern Windows 10 PC or macOS machine from Apple will be able to set up a VPN directly through the operating system or use a third-party app to secure the entirety of that device's internet access. There are VPN providers with their own apps for Android and iOS, and both those mobile OSes also have baked-in VPN clients too. There are plenty of Wi-Fi modem/routers out there that let you log in to a VPN directly, securing every device that then connects through that router.
A VPN is different to Tor. Tor (its full name is The Onion Router, because it has layers, Donkey) is its own special and complicated beast. And it's not perfect, either -- there are a lot of Tor exit nodes, set up by the FBI and other organisations, that monitor traffic. More on that in a separate article.
There are a few things that, ideally, your brand new VPN should do -- or not do. It shouldn't store traffic, it shouldn't muck around with the content that you're seeing, it shouldn't really get in the way of your online experience at all.
- Ideally, the VPN you select should not keep logs of your activity. That's what you're trying to avoid in the first place, right? Some VPNs may keep a time-sensitive log for troubleshooting, but ideally it won't persist for more than a few hours -- rather than a few days or even indefinitely.
- Check to see whether the VPN you're looking at has any user reports of any ad injections. VPNs can -- theoretically -- muck with the traffic to your device, and some less-than-cool ones use that opportunity to replace the ads that you see with ads of their own to make an extra buck off you. This is more likely on 'free' VPNs.
- Make sure your VPN won't unreasonably limit the speed you're able to attain through your internet connection. This is more important on PC than it is on mobile, really, but choosing a VPN that doesn't cap your bandwidth will make sure you're able to muck around online as if you didn't have a VPN switched on in the first place.
- Similarly, make sure your VPN won't only offer you a certain amount of data before you have to re-up and buy more. This is A Pain for anyone that just wants to use the 'net like they normally do. You'd only want a data-limited VPN if it was literally otherwise perfect for your very specific requirements.
- Make sure the VPN you choose has an Australian server. It helps dramatically with ping -- you might also know it as latency or lag, but it's the transit time between when you make a request on your phone or PC and when it reaches the (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Pornhub, whatever) server you're contacting. A lower ping is always better.
- It works on my PC (and Mac) and my phones (Android and iOS) simultaneously
- It has Australian servers -- one in Sydney, one in Melbourne -- that are fast
- It also has US servers with low ping -- useful for a bunch of different stuff
- According to PIA, it does not keep any logs of any traffic
- All traffic is treated equally through PIA servers -- no slowing of P2P traffic
Why Would You Want To Use A VPN?
You don't have to have something to hide to want to use a VPN. That's a security state argument that leads us down a dangerous path -- why would you not let the government install a security camera in your living room, your bedroom, your bathroom? -- and you should gently remind anyone that makes that argument that there's absolutely nothing illegal about installing and using a VPN.
VPNs have legitimate uses. Many businesses already use VPNs to secure and encrypt their traffic to further protect proprietary information from snoopers and competitors and anyone with nefarious motives. A VPN is simply an extra layer of privacy on top of the privacy that already exists on the internet through protocols like SSL and HTTPS.
A VPN will allow you to route the entirety of your internet traffic through another country, making it seem to the outside world that you're in that country. There are dozens of reasons that you might want to do this -- avoiding the geoblocking that exists on services like Netflix, for example. Australia's own Productivity Commission said that Aussie citizens should be allowed to circumvent geoblocking.
What VPN Do You Use?
I have no skin in the game -- we don't have any VPN companies sponsoring Gizmodo or this article (and we'd clearly disclose it if we did, anyway) so I'm only going off my own research and experience. I say that because a lot of the sites out there that list and rank and compare VPNs do take sponsorship from the companies they're talking about, and that skews the results that they list.
Personally, I've had great experiences with Private Internet Access. Here's my quick laundry list of reasons why I bought a 2-year PIA licence:
Your mileage may vary, and I don't want to pretend that my recommendation is worth a huge amount. What I'd say is do your research -- look at TorrentFreak, look at That One Privacy Site, then look elsewhere too. Choose one that sounds like it offers what you're after. And if it's not right, ask for a refund and try something else.
And, last but not least, always look around for a deal. I renewed my subscription to Private Internet Access just this morning, and with a little bit of Google searching I was able to find an offer for two years' access for the price of one. VPNs can be crazy cheap if you find the right deal for the right service, and while I'd always say that finding the right VPN is worth paying a little extra, that final decision is up to you.
I've included a few deals that we've run in the past on Giz below. I didn't actually use any of them -- doh -- but you might be able to if you decide on any one of these VPN providers.
If you've got any recommendations of your own, or questions, please jump in the comments! If you see someone asking a question that you can answer, please do! We're all in this together now.
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