Whether you're worried about competitors peeking at sensitive business information or concerned about the government trawling through your browsing history, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is an easy way to protect your internet traffic from prying eyes.
A VPN is a secure encrypted link which extends from your computer or handheld device, across the internet and back to the VPN server. The VPN server then connects you to the rest of the internet.
Using a VPN stops nearby people snooping on your internet traffic, which is particularly handy if you're on a potentially insecure network such as a public Wi-Fi hotspot. The VPN also prevents your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from monitoring your traffic, which is useful if you want to avoid surveillance and filtering.
To create a secure VPN connection you can use the VPN client built into Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android or Windows Phone 8.1. Some broadband modem/routers also feature a built-in VPN client, allowing every connected device to run across the VPN connection. Alternatively you can install third-party VPN software on your end devices, perhaps supplied by your VPN provider.
To engage a VPN you need the login and password details for a VPN server. It's possible to setup a VPN server in your office, or else you can look to a wide range of free and paid VPN services with servers around the world.
Many businessfolk use a VPN to make a secure connection back to the office. It's a sensible precaution if you're dealing with sensitive information, particularly when staff might be connecting via hotel networks or public Wi-Fi hotspots which may not be secure.
By connecting to a VPN server running in your office you can also gain access to office systems and resources which aren't exposed to the internet, just as if you were in the office and connected to local network. This allows staff to stay productive while they're on the road, while adding an extra layer of security against intruders.
Instead of a running a VPN server in the office, you might use a third-party VPN service such as WiTopia, PureVPN or StrongVPN – which start from a few dollars per month. You can make a secure connection to any of their VPN servers, with the VPN provider then connecting you to the internet so you can reach your office.
This arrangement doesn't offer the same level of end-to-end protection as connecting directly to a VPN server in your office, but it does prevent nearby people snooping on the traffic. Other people on the hotel network or public Wi-Fi hotspot can't monitor your activity, nor can your ISP. Your traffic is encrypted all the way to the VPN server.
One drawback of using a VPN is that you're at the mercy of the VPN provider's internet connection, so there's sometimes a performance drop. A paid VPN service is likely to be more reliable than a free service. For the best performance you should connect to the VPN server closest to your current location. VPN providers like WiTopia operate servers around the world and let you freely switch between them, which is handy when you travel.
When you're connected to a VPN it appears to the world as if you're located in the same place as the VPN server. This isn't a big deal if you're connecting to the nearest VPN server in order to get the best performance, but if you've the option to connect to servers in other countries then you can masquerade as a local. Connect to a US-based VPN server and you might have access to Netflix, or jump across to a UK-based server and you'll probably be able to watch BBC iPlayer.
Content providers like Netflix are aware of these tricks and are engaged in a cat and mouse game with VPN providers. Experimenting with different VPN servers around the US, from Dallas to Detroit, will usually get you past geo-blocking.
Of course there's still the performance hit of connecting to a VPN server far away, which may impact on your streaming video quality. If you're only using a VPN in order to sneak into Netflix then you're probably better off with a DNS-based geo-blocking workaround such as Unblock US or UnoTelly. These don't create a secure connection, so streaming speeds are faster but your activities are no longer encrypted.
Protect your metadata
A VPN connection also lets you bypass any locally applied monitoring and filtering – whether you're in a hotel room, classroom or even at work – because the network provider can't see what you're doing, only that you're making an encrypted connection. Your activities are secure all the way to the VPN server. But keep in mind that if you're linking to a Sydney-based VPN server then you're probably connecting to the internet via an Australian ISP. This means you're still subject to any government-mandated internet restrictions.
If you simply want to sneak into Facebook from work or school then it's perhaps easier to use a proxy server rather than a full VPN service. A proxy server doesn't encrypt your traffic, instead it just acts as the middleman to access websites on your behalf. Local network filters will only detect the proxy server's URL, such as HideMyAss.com, not the URL of the end website you're accessing. If the network administrator blocks access to your favourite proxy server, keeping trying others until you get through.
Talk of internet filtering and metadata retention has civil libertarians concerned, but you can easily bypass government mandated Australia-wide internet monitoring by connecting to a VPN server in another country. With the click of a button you can tunnel to the other side of the world, emerging in the US or UK to avoid Australian restrictions and surveillance. There's nothing the government can do to stop Australians using VPNs this way, unless they attempt to block all VPN traffic – which would be a major disruption to legitimate business users.
Government efforts to block BitTorrent search engines such as The Pirate Bay would also be simple to bypass using VPNs and proxy servers. Some BitTorrent download software even has built-in support for encryption and proxy servers in order to thwart filtering efforts.
You're not invisible
It's tempting to think of a VPN as the ultimate online cloaking device, but if you cross the line someone will catch you. Most VPN providers promise anonymity but, under laws like the US Patriot Act, they may have no choice but to rat you out. Even if you are protected by the law, there are plenty examples of the so-called good guys bending and breaking the rules in recent times.
Even if your VPN connection is secure, law enforcement and spy agencies have plenty of other ways to snoop on your activities – especially if they can convince a judge that you're a threat. Political dissidents and whistleblowers often use the TOR and I2P networks to hide their online activities, but last year US law enforcement apparently cracked TOR security in order to bring down a child pornography ring. The Feds won't care if you sneak into Netflix, but if you're really up to no good they'll catch you one way or another.