If you ever tried to set up a Netflix account before it launched in South Africa, chances are you’ve come across virtual private networking.
For the less tech-savvy, virtual private networks (VPNs) might only be a term you’ve heard or read about online.
Aside from circumventing geo-blocking (which Netflix has cracked down on), VPNs offer a number of benefits, including:
- Accessing computers, devices, on your work or home network.
- Providing security over untrusted connections.
- Providing greater privacy over any network.
It’s important to note that using a VPN is not a silver bullet for all your online privacy needs – you are simply moving the point of trust from one place to another.
On a home or work network connection, you are trusting that your Internet service provider will keep your browsing habits and unencrypted browsing data private.
When using a VPN, all your Internet traffic will be encrypted, hiding everything you do online from your ISP. However, it requires a server, sometimes called an “exit node”, to act as your proxy.
Your data is decrypted at the exit node, which forwards your requests to the website or online service you are communicating with.
If you use a secure website that implements Transport Layer Security, like your bank, then the exit node still wouldn’t be able to read your data – but it would know you were talking to a safe connection.
To quote Mr. Robot: “Whoever’s in control of the exit nodes is also in control of the traffic.”
There are various implementations of VPNs you can use to secure your online communications, including ones where you can control your own exit node.
Some are easy enough for average web users to use, while others will require various degrees of technical skill.
We’ll go through them from simplest to most difficult.
Opera built-in browser VPN
Opera recently added free VPN functionality to the developer version of its browser. You can enable it in settings and switch it on and off with a button next to the address bar.
Several smartphone VPN clients are available for Android and iOS, including one from Opera.
One of the VPN clients Lifehacker recommends is Tunnelbear, which is free for the first 500MB of traffic and requires you to pay in thereafter.
The Onion Router (Tor)
In addition to allowing you to browse securely, Tor also lets you access parts of the dark web – Tor hidden services – on its network.
It has easy-to-use installers available on its website for Windows and MacOS that lets you anonymise your online browsing.
If you want to use Tor as a proxy for other web traffic, there are instructions for that online – though it is not recommended.
Instructions for using Tor on Android are also available from the Tor website.
IPsec and L2TP VPN provider
If you would like to run all the Internet traffic from your computer and smartphone through a VPN, then you can look at a VPN provider.
The first consideration is how much you are willing to pay for the service. While free VPNs are available, these typically do not provide great speeds and may not be private.
Another consideration is that VPNs come in different flavours, with three popular choices: IPsec (Internet Protocol Security), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), and Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP).
That One Privacy Site hosts an extensive spreadsheet which compares almost every aspect of a VPN for you to look at before making a decision.
Once you have selected a VPN provider, it gives instructions on how to configure your computer and phone to use its services.
Screenshots illustrating how to configure VPNs on Windows, Android, and iOS are shown below.
Set up your own VPN
The most technically-challenging option, but also the one where you will have the most control, is to set up your own VPN.
Considerations for this option include selecting a hosting company you trust and paying for the bandwidth you consume over the secure connection.
An open-source project to consider when tackling this is OpenVPN, a type of VPN like L2TP and PPTP that many commercial VPN providers also offer.