Private Internet Access for iOS

Today I am going to discuss Private Internet Access for iOS. This is going to be in two parts: the PIA app (available in the App Store) and the option to use OpenVPN, which requires a separate app. Both of these methods have some advantages, and both have their disadvantages. In this installment I am going to discuss the App. Continue reading “Private Internet Access for iOS”

Private Internet Access for Windows

Last week I covered setting up Private Internet Access for Mac. This week’s post on the topic will cover the Windows operating system. Even though the Private Internet Access interface is very similar from Mac to Windows, there are a couple subtle differences. The next couple of posts will cover iOS and Android. If sufficient interest exists, I will also do one for Linux (if you’d like to see Linux, message or comment). Without further ado, Private Internet Access for Windows: Continue reading “Private Internet Access for Windows”

Private Internet Access for Mac

In the posts regarding smartphone interfaces (Wi-Fi, Cellular) I have recommended that you use a virtual private network (VPN). Immediately following the post on Wi-Fi security and privacy a comment was posted with questions about settings in Private Internet Access (PIA). Because I have not covered this topic in detail, and because many of your have chose PIA based on my recommendation, I will cover PIA for various operating systems intermittently over the next couple of weeks. Today we will go over Private Internet Access for Mac. Continue reading “Private Internet Access for Mac”

3DSC Day 14: Virtual Private Network

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.

Buy VPN

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.

Virtual Private Network

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.

Private Internet Access for iOS

During the writing of Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS I had the opportunity to work with a lot of products that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise considered.  One of these is Private Internet Access for iOS (affiliate link).  Though over the years I have used a virtual private network on my iPhone and other mobile devices, and I have used Private Internet Access rather heavily, I had never used the two together until recently.  The Private Internet Access app for iOS is one of the most convenient VPNs I have used to date and the VPN that I will continue to rely on for my phones.

Private Internet Access for iOS
The iOS app’s homescreen. The PIA app is incredibly easy to use.

The PIA app is a certificate-authenticated VPN which means that installing the app also installs an authentication certificate on your device.  VPNs of this nature can be set to be always on, rather than credential based VPNs which must be manually reconnected each time you unlock the phone.  Though certificate-based VPNs are notorious for draining batteries rapidly, PIA has found a rather ingenous solution to this.  Rather than remaining always connected to the VPN server (which is the reason “always on” VPNs are notorious for killing batteries) PIA does not always remain connected.  Rather, it drops the connection when the device goes to sleep.  Upon unlocking the device, though, data connections are blocked until the connection is automatically reestablished.  Though your battery will not last as long as it would with a very judiciously used credential (username and password) authenticated VPN, the security PIA provides is well worth the shortened battery life.

Private Internet Access for iOS
Some of PIA’s exit server options from the iOS app.

I have written previously about the security and privacy benefits of using a VPN.  Private Internet Access provides all of these benefits, including encrypted traffic to and from the VPN server and mulitple exit servers in mulitple countries to choose from.  As I have also written before, PIA also allows you a number of anonymous payment options including BitCoin and redeeming store gift cards.  Yes, store gift cards, meaning if you have an old Starbuck or Home Depot gift card with a balance on it you can cash it in for VPN service.  Not only does this give you a way to use those small balances left on those gift cards at the bottom of the junk drawer, it also allows even the low-tech a way of purchasing VPN service anonymously.

Private Internet Access stores NO logs, allows unlimited bandwidth and five devices connected simultaneously, and costs just $40/per year.

Why YOU Need a Virtual Private Network

Using a virtual private network (VPN) is an important part of strong digital security.  A VPN can accomplish several tasks.  First, it creates an encrypted tunnel to a remote server through which your traffic transits.  This means that anyone inspecting your traffic (from internet service providers to malicious hackers) will capture nothing but unusable, encrypted data.  For best security I recommend using the OpenVPN or IPSec encryption protocols.  Next, because your traffic appears to originate from a remote server your IP address is not correlated with your browsing.  This is important: if you visit a website that logs your IP address they can use the IP address to find your geographical location, your internet service provider, and all your visits to that site.  Using a VPN server that hundreds of other people also use makes you less distinctive and protects your physical location.  Lastly, VPNs can be used to help bypass geographical restrictions.  If you are in a country that blocks certain content you can use your VPN to connect to a server in another country, bypassing geographical restriction.

IPv6 Test

I recommend strongly against using free VPN services.  The recent story about a free VPN known as Hola! last week is an excellent reminder of why paying for a VPN is worth it: Hola! was selling the bandwidth of anyone who had their plugin installed, sometimes to malicious users who conducted botnet activity.  This opens users up to a number of security risks.  Free VPN providers have also been known to monetize by collecting and selling user information which defeats much of the raison d’être for a VPN.

To determine if your VPN is leaking information about you or how much information you are leaking if you are not using a VPN, Private Internet Access (with which I am an affiliate) has some helpful links.  They will test whether your DNS is leaked, if your IP address is leaked when you send an email, and if your IPv6 address is leaked.

Though I like Astrill, Private Internet Access, and WiTopia, there are pleny of great VPN options out there.  Most are under $100 per year and offer a great many features.  This is a very small price to pay for the disporportionate level of security and privacy they provide.