A Virtual Private Network sounds like a nerdy place for recluses. It’s not. Once you have it, it’s like a car or a washing machine. You wonder how you ever got on without it.
Setting up a VPN is simple and effective. Download the app, install, (pay), open your browser, start the service, choose where you connect to. Detailed instructions are below. What follows is a list of reasons, noting that I’m recommending use only for legal and bona fide causes which I’m assuming you’re adult enough to determine yourself. Then I’ll treat you to some links to set-up instructions for the one I’ve been using for a while now and that has served me well, at a reasonable price. I’ll also put the cost in perspective.
What does it do:
Basically, it lets you connect your laptop, computer or mobile device to a server in a country of your choice, thus telling the world of the web that you are logged on there, rather than where you actually are. This has the following effect on various selected stakeholders:
- Google, FB & Co: Think you’re in the English speaking home country and present you with search results in English and relating to that place, assuming you’ve logged onto a server there. This is favourable to Portuguese search results in Portuguese when I’m in Portugal, in my case
- Internet Censorship: As you’re logged into the web in your home country, assuming you’ve chosen a server there, you can avoid the censorship that might apply in the country where you actually are. As you don’t see what you’re not seeing, this is where having a VPN is quite an eye opener, once you have it. Many countries ban all sorts of sites, for various reasons, be it due to their illicit content (sex, drugs and rock’n’roll), their political commentary, their historical transgressions which might have been fixed but not forgotten (e.g. the DailyMail in certain countries in SouthEast Asia, the New York Times in China), their undesired social media capacity (FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter and Google in China, that includes Gmail and YouTube), or even just certain Wikipedia entries (e.g. Saffron Revolution in Cambodia, not that that’s where it happened even), which are subtle and you wouldn’t know it’s been cut unless you’re looking for it. Or you’re a nerd like me.
- Copyright and Licensing: Again, I’m not encouraging illicit use, this is just a description of what some people do. Rights to intellectual property are awarded by geographical region and can differ, whether by existence or enforcement. YouTube might not have the right to distribute content e.g. songs in the country you’re in, but does have the right to do so in another. Netflix has a US database and a different one for various countries. You will see torrents advertising the need for a VPN, you are not anonymous – see the link at the bottom
- Internet Security: Last but not least, you are logging into a Virtual Private Network. This adds a layer of protection to your connection, especially when you’re using a public Wifi Hotspot, or even when you’re using the line coming into your apartment block, this is easy to compromise and attractive to people who want to snoop on a whole block’s banking transactions. Any time you transmit sensitive details, like credit card numbers, passwords or banking data, you should be using a VPN, regardless of where you are.
The Downside: Your connection might be slower. Quite often, it is. However, quite often, it isn’t – you might be using a less crowded server. If it becomes unbearable, you can turn the VPN off. Just be sure to have it on when you are doing something confidential, like sharing vital information.
Which one should I get?
There’s lots of providers, many free. With something as important as this, i.e. my access to information and need for security, I think a certain expenditure is easily justified. Think of how much time you spend on the internet versus in your car, or using another costly object. With this you get an ad-free product with customer service and a wide range of servers across the world which you can access / log in to. I was recommended PureVPN at one point and found them good and reliable, as well as patient and responsive when it came to issues. This is a good and necessary quality, as it’s difficult to be patient and polite when your internet access is curtailed in a foreign country at an inopportune time. Looking at their offer, it’s very competitive versus the rest, and I know it works. I’m very open to feedback on this. They have two year for one specials which I regularly miss out on.
How do I set it up?
Follow the instructions. Literally. There’s generally two ways: Via an app, and via your settings, whether that’s on your computer, laptop or mobile device. The app can look more appealing but I’d recommend learning to set it up via settings as this gets to the heart of the matter and will be easier to fix. On a Mac, it’s System Preferences, Networks, and then you add the VPN. Also be sure to tick the “Show Wi-Fi status in menu bar”, this will add an icon at the top which you can click and get a quick overview of your networks, it tells you at a glance if your VPN is on and you can access the Networks menu directly from there. I recommend setting up a number of VPNs so you can switch if necessary, without then having to set one up on another server if it’s not working, as that will be the time when you’re least willing / able to do it. Choose a server in your home country, then perhaps one on each continent. Also note there’s different protocols, in summary:
- PPTP – oldest and least secure, might be faster but not recommended
- LT2P – secure and perhaps slower but I don’t find this and generally find it most reliable, least prone to dropping off, and it’s secure
- IKEv2 – this is meant to be best, both regarding speed and security, but I find it unstable i.e. it drops off when you don’t expect it and without noticing, and also there’s a glitch on the Mac where it doesn’t show it’s connected but you know it is if in the Networks menu the button gives you the option to ‘Disconnect’
Using the app has the advantage that you can use the “Internet Kill Switch“, which will disconnect you from the internet if your VPN connection drops, so that you don’t ever use an unprotected line inadvertently.
Be sure to download a list of server names so you can access them when you need them, usually when your internet is the slowest.. They’re attached below.
Here’s some links to instructions, and they’re also attached as pdf. For further reading on internet anonymity, here’s a link first: