A great way to protect your privacy online: a VPN

When I was working in France in August, there were two Internet issues I was concerned about.

The first, I was generally worried about my privacy, especially in a foreign country (while I’m sure the NSA sweeps up my traffic along with everyone else’s, at the time I was far more worried about the Russians and the French).

And second, I found that I was unable to access certain sites and services since I was outside of the US, and the Internet therefore considered me a “foreigner.”

The solution? A VPN, or virtual private network.

We’ve got ads for the service I’ve been using, Private Internet Access, running on the site right now.  I started using Private Internet Access this summer in Europe, and I love it so much I’ve decided to promote the service, and in return AMERICAblog gets a portion of each sale (just click through on any of the links to their site in this article in order to give us credit if you decide to buy).  I cannot recommend them enough.

Let me you give a quick review of Private Internet Access, and VPN’s generally

I’m not going to pretend to understand exactly what a VPN is – beyond the fact that it encrypts what you’re doing before it goes out on the Internet, and changes (masks) your IP address to further hide who you are – but I do understand why it’s necessary.  In a nutshell, it helps you protect your online communications – and among “communications” I count actual voice or email, but also the sites you surf on the Web, business transactions, and really anything you do on your computer or phone that involves the Internet.

Here’s a “dummies” explanation that really does a better job than anything I’ve found online:

A VPN uses a special protocol to establish a virtual channel between two machines or two networks. Imagine if you could blow a soap bubble in the shape of a tube and only you and your friend could talk through it. The bubble is temporary and when you want to have another conversation, you would have to create another bubble. That’s kinda like a VPN’s channel. This channel is actually a temporary direct session. This is what is commonly referred to as tunneling.

Then the VPN also exchanges a set of shared secrets to create an encryption key. The traffic traveling along the established channel is wrapped with an encrypted package that has an address on the outside of the package, but the contents are hidden from view. It’s sort of like a candy wrapper. You can see the candy, but you don’t really know what the candy looks like on the inside. The same thing happens with the encrypted traffic. The original contents are hidden from view, but it has enough information to get it to its destination. After the data reaches its destination, the wrapper is safely removed.

For my generation and older, think “Get Smart” and the “cone of silence.”

Get-Smart--cone-of-silence

When and why you’d need a VPN

1. When you’re using someone else’s wifi and are worried about sending email, or typing passwords.

I don’t worry when I’m at friend’s houses, but it is a little weird being in a coffeeshop or someone else’s office or a hotel, and having to enter my gmail password on my computer – or worse, logging into my bank online – knowing it’s going through someone else’s wifi network.  Even weirder, when you’re in Europe and working with friends back home on the Russian gay rights issues, and you suddenly start worrying about who might be listening in (particularly when you’re communicating with Russian human rights activists via the Internet, or with American reporters in Moscow, and I was doing both).  In all of those cases, a VPN helps by protecting/encrypting your information as it travels through someone else’s wifi.

2. Have you ever traveled and found that certain videos don’t work because of the country you’re in?

Or certain mobile movie or TV subscriber services that you use to watch videos on your computer, phone, or tablet when you’re traveling stop working when you get to Europe?  Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go are all examples. A VPN solves the problem by masking where you are, and broadcast instead an IP address that says you’re in the US (when you’re really in France).

3. I would never recommend you download anything you don’t have rights too, but that’s another situation in which people use VPNs to protect their identities.

More generally, if you’re simply worried about your privacy, and all the recent NSA news gives you the creeps, a VPN is a good, and easy, first step to up your privacy protections (I still can’t figure out how to encrypt email, though I did figure out how to encrypt chats using Adium).

LifeHacker has more on VPNs, and they list 5 services they like – one of which is the service I use, Private Internet Access.

Ars Technica has a really good writer up on Private Internet Access as well – the reporter who wrote the story uses them too.  Ars Technica gets into Private Internet Access’ privacy policy, and the fact that they challenge ever subpoena they get, unlike some services.

So, as I said, I can’t recommend Private Internet Access enough.  And just fyi, I had heard about the resale deal this summer, where we could get a portion of any sales, and I wanted to try Private Internet Access out first to see if they’re any good, and whether I could even figure it out.  I’m now a regular (paying) customer.  You can use this link to check out their site, and purchase the service if you like.

Also, there are free VPNs out there.  I tried, couldn’t figure them out.  For a little less than $40/year, this was worth it – it’s easy and it works, so I went with it, and am glad I did.

Finally, practically speaking, it was easy to set up.  It was absolute cake on my computer, and took no time at all.  On my iPhone and iPad I ran into a snag because I hadn’t read the instructions closely enough.  Initially they give you a login username and password, then after you login, and you’re setting up your phone and tablet, you have to create a new login code.  Whatever I did, I mixed up the two login codes and used the wrong one on my phone. I re-read the instructions, caught my error, and then everything was a breeze.  And they’re compatible with Windows and OSX, iPhones, iPads, and a number of other devices – obviously check that out on their site.

Also, I’ve not found the service to slow down my Internet connection at all (that’s a common complaint with some VPNs).

Good luck.  It’s one of the best purchases I’ve made.


(I’m told that in order to actually see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me – so say the experts.)


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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