Not all VPNs are created equal. Some keep logs, some cap your traffic, some don't work on mobile, some don't work at all. This is what you need to know about choosing a VPN provider, as well as a few recommendations to get you started.
This story has been updated since its original publication.
What The Hell Is A VPN?
You may have heard a lot about VPNs over the last few months and years thanks to a few different pieces of legislation that have passed through the Australian government. One is a scheme that would see all your data collected and archived by your ISP for law enforcement purposes and the other is a system designed to block pirate sites. What both these schemes fail to address is where VPN users fit in.
Put simply, a virtual private network is a group of computers (or discrete networks) connected together through over a public network -- namely, the internet. Businesses use VPNs to connect to remote data centres, or for employees to connect remotely to the physical network of their workplace. Individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they’re not physically on the same LAN (local area network), or as a method for securing and encrypting their communications when they’re using an untrusted public network.
What a VPN does is route all the traffic of your computer (or your entire network, if you're running it on a router rather than a PC) not directly to the Internet through your ISP, but first through a different server that has the effect of anonymising your traffic's point of origin. A VPN will add an additional hop to the route your data takes between your PC and a site like Facebook, but it's that extra hop that obfuscates its original location.
When you connect to a VPN, you launch a VPN client on your computer (or click a link on a special website), log in with your credentials, and your computer exchanges trusted keys with a remote server. Once both computers have verified each other’s identity, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.
There are a few different types of VPN. You can pay to access a bespoke VPN provider every month which would see your data piped through a private pipe, or you can use a peer-to-peer VPN service that uses other people's computers as the endpoints. The latter is more problematic, as we'll cover in a moment.
Why Would You Need One?
There are a few different reasons to employ a VPN.
You could be a traveller who needs to access files stored on a server in your home country. You may want to use it to get access to another country's Netflix library like the US or UK. You may want it to connect to your employer's corporate network. You may just want it to keep your data safe and secure from anyone who might be trying to listen in.
No matter what you use a VPN for, you'll need to keep a few things in mind.
Before You Sign Up
Before you start piping all of your data through someone else's connection -- whether it's another internet denizen, or a company that specifically offers VPN services -- it's worth keeping a few things in mind about virtual private network operators.
Firstly: whether you use a VPN or not, your data is never 100 per cent safe. Ever. That means you should be especially cautious of VPN providers, given you are sending your data through their pipes from the moment you fire it up.
It's crucial to know what your both your data and your IP address are being used for, especially when it comes to peer-to-peer VPNs. Hola was recently busted for hijacking users' computers to sell their bandwidth, for example, and it's a perfect example of the danger of a VPN turning you into the money-making product.
What you need to do is be sure that the VPN provider you've chosen to use is open and honest about its traffic and security policies. Find one with accessible documents that detail how your data is handled from point to point.
You should also make sure that the VPN you sign up to isn't about to cap the bandwidth or the quantity of the data going through the tunnel. Make sure that when you sign up you get your money's worth, and sign up to a plan that doesn't limit your traffic or cap you based on certain download quotas. What's the point of paying for a VPN, only to have it cut you off halfway through the month?
It's also worth keeping an eye out for a VPN provider that will give you mobile options as well as desktop support. The internet goes everywhere with you on your smartphone, so your VPN should be able to as well.
Keep It Simple
Depending on what you want to use your VPN for, you might not even need to shell out cash every month for access to a VPN. You may just need to keep it simple and trust Google.
As the Sydney Morning Herald points out, sometimes getting around certain ISP-level blocking technology is as simple as pointing your DNS settings at Google's own DNS server.
This isn't a VPN, but for certain uses it will have the same effect. Google's Domain Name Servers (hosted at 184.108.40.206 or 220.127.116.11) have been used by protesters in countries like Turkey and Egypt to get around ISP-level DNS poisoning, and now it can be used by Aussies to get around similar site blocking methods.
This won't get you around every site block on the planet, however: you'll still need a VPN if you want international media service like Netflix and Hulu to think you're in a different country, or to safeguard your data through a secure tunnel.
So Which Services Are Good?
With these recommendations in mind, we've collected five great VPNs for you to get started with.
TorGuard is great for a few reasons.
First of all, it has a huge variety of different server endpoints around the world. It claims to have 1200 different servers in over 42 different countries, so whether you're using it to hop a streaming provider's geofence or hide your traffic, it's fit for purpose.
Secondly, TorGuard doesn't keep any logs, so even if the Feds do come sniffing around for your data, there's no way for them to figure out where you've been online. #getawarrant
Thirdly, it's affordable. TorGuard offers a range of different plans depending on what you're after in your VPN provider. There's a service that gets you just an proxy server for security, a pro-level service, an email-centric service or a bundle that includes it all. And even with a range of plans available, the most expensive offering tops out at $US11.54 per month so you won't break the bank.
Private Internet Access is a great little tool that offers privacy on a shoestring budget.
It has server endpoints all over the world, doesn't log a thing and gives you access to all of it for just $US6.95 a month or $US39.95 a year.
Plus, PIA has a commitment to speed, so your connection shouldn't bottleneck when it enters and exits the VPN tunnel.
Despite the fact it has the word "cyber" in the name (ugh), CyberGhost is a great VPN for privacy and portability.
It offers apps for your iOS and Android devices, as well as support for the leading desktop platforms like Windows and Mac OS X.
It's even cheaper than PIA, giving you access to a free, speed-limited tier, as well as offering a $US5.83 monthly tier that uncaps your speed for one device only. For simultaneous usage across multiple devices, you're looking at a monthly payment of $US10.99.
IPVanish is the most expensive of the five we're recommending here, but with higher prices comes better assurances. IPVanish trades on absolute security. They promise that "no hackers, no governments, no firewalls" will get you down when you use their service. I'd take that with a grain of salt, personally, but if security is the name of your game, you need something you can trust.
It's $US10 per month, or you can go with an annual subscription for $US77.
IPVanish also works on smartphones and tablets, which is nice.
Do It Yourself
The last one we have for you requires a little more work than the ones featured above.
Naturally, the DIY approach is popular with our friends at Lifehacker. If you don’t need exit servers in different countries, and your primary requirement is to encrypt and secure your data when you’re away from home, you can roll yout own VPN with OpenVPN or a number of other free, open-source tools.
Many of the best routers on the market support OpenVPN. Alternatively, DD-WRT or Tomato firmware both offer VPN access, so if you can install either of those on your router, you’ll be set. The beauty of a home-rolled VPN is that you get to set the level of encryption, and you have complete control over who connects, who has access to what parts of your home network, and where your data goes from there.
This setup is particularly appealing for people travelling who want to encrypt their data while they’re on the road, but if you work with a couple of friends, it’s easy to set up a mesh network that would get you around content restrictions and port blocks. Similarly, advanced users can fire up a VPN on their preferred host or VPS provider, and keep their VPN running there while they connect to it when necessary. You won’t receive quite as much as a professional VPN service provides, but you might get everything that you need at zero cost.
What's your VPN provider of choice? Tell us in the comments!
Alan Henry also contributed to this article.