Today is going to be a little bit different that most because today I am going to ask you to spend a little money. Today’s task is to purchase a virtual private network service. A virtual private network (VPN) is one of those things that I just could not live without. After using one for so many years it feels like wearing a seatbelt – I can go on without it, but I’m going to have a nagging feeling the whole time.
So what exactly is a VPN? A VPN works like this: you install a program on your computer and smartphone. When activated the program will create an encrypted “tunnel” to a remote server, also owned and/or operated by the VPN provider. Your traffic will be encrypted to and from this remote server. This has two benefits:
- Security: If you are worried about your local traffic being captured and analyzed, worry no more. All of your traffic will be encrypted and protected from hackers, internet service providers, nosy owners of public Wi-Fi hotspots, and your company IT guy. Your VPN will also defeat trackers like Verizon’s supercookies. It is hard to overstate the security benefits of using a VPN, especially when you are connected to an untrusted network.
- Privacy: VPNs also offer you a great deal of privacy. When you connect to a VPN server your traffic appears to originate from that server. This means that websites that are attempting to track your physical location and browsing history (via your IP address) will have a much harder time doing so. Additionally, all your traffic that exits the VPN server exits alongside the traffic of other users, making it less distinct and not obviously yours.
Although there are tons of free VPN services available, there are lots of good reasons NOT to use a free virtual private network. Running a VPN service is expensive business with a lot of overhead, and free ones have to be financed in some way. Some free VPNs are little more than data collection mechanisms for gathering subscribers’ data. For example Facebook paid $120,000,000.00 for Onavo, a company that offers a free VPN and data compression app. One imagines Facebook did so to serve the needs of Facebook and will receive a return on that investment, probably in data collected from users. One free VPN even sold user bandwidth that was subsequently used in botnet and DDoS attacks.
The virtual private network service that I recommend is Private Internet Access. Private Internet Access (PIA) has a lot of things going for it that I really like. First, PIA has over 3,000 servers. Though you are only allowed to choose what region you would like to connect to (US Midwest, US Texas, US East, etc.) there are numerous servers in each “region”. This allows PIA to load balance so traffic is not slowed by heavy use on any single server. Next, PIA uses the OpenVPN encryption protocol which offers the best VPN encryption currently available. A single PIA subscription offers unlimited bandwidth and allows you to connect up to five devices simultaneously. This is enough for many small families to connect most of their devices with a single plan. Finally, PIA is extremely user friendly and available for Android, iOS, Mac OS X, and Windows devices.
To use Private Internet Access (or many other paid VPNs) follow the steps below:
- Purchase a subscription. A year is only $39.95 which averages out to $3.33 per month. You can pay for your PIA subscription with all major credit cards, PayPal, BitCoins, or even with major retailer gift cards. Have an old, half-used REI gift card from last Christmas? It’s probably worth at least a month or two of PIA service. After you have purchased a subscription you will be emailed your login credentials.
- Download the PIA app on your computer, phone, and other devices you wish to protect (I have previously written specifically about PIA for iOS).
- Enter your credentials on the app and connect. That’s it.
PIA does offer some advanced user settings, like the ability to change encryption, SHA, and handshake protocols as shown in the screen grab below, but the default options are solid.
FULL DISCLOSURE: this blog has an affiliate relationship with PIA. This means I receive a small commission for every subscription sold through this site. However, I do not push PIA because of this; I push PIA because I believe in the product and use it myself. There are numerous other VPN providers with which I could partner but I do not because they have yet to earn my trust. That being said, there are many very good, reputable VPN providers out there. If you are uncomfortable with PIA I encourage you to do your own research. Some other virtual private networks that I have experience with and would personally recommend (and DO NOT have an affilate relationship with) include AirVPN, blackVPN, and CyberGhost.