VPNs 101: What’s a VPN, Do You Need One, Free vs Paid VPNs, and How to Get Started

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In the first season of Mr. Robot, when Elliot and his fellow fsociety hackers are planning an attack on Steel Mountain, they come to rely on a Raspberry Pi to gain access to the storage facility’s climate control system. Their plan involves, as Elliot remarks: “This circuit board, if installed behind a thermostat, lets us plant an asymmetric back door [to] create a VPN in the Steel Mountain intranet.”

For many of us, it would have been the first time the term VPN came up. It stands for ‘virtual private network’, which is like creating an encrypted tunnel between you and the VPN provider. It’s a way to protect yourself from snooping, access geo-restricted content, or bypass censorship (with varying degrees of success, depending upon your VPN).

In the case of Mr. Robot, the Pi’s Ethernet port and wireless capabilities gave them access to every computer part of the Steel Mountain network, sitting anywhere in the world. More importantly, it meant no one was aware what they were up to, including the Steel Mountain tech team, whose job is to monitor all streams of data.

Why do I need a VPN?
While most of us aren’t looking to engage in any criminal activities, understanding what a VPN is, how it works, and where we can use one, has become more important today as more and more of our lives take place online. Today, your identity exists online, along with your financial data, government access, and most of your work. Keeping all of this private and secure is essential, particularly when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi networks in cafés, airports, hotels, or other public spaces; if you do, you should be using a VPN, unless you’re okay with strangers sifting through your data.

There are other reasons for using a VPN, too. From Netflix to YouTube, companies tend to region-lock their content, saying “the content is not available in your region”. That means people residing in different countries have access to different content. If you use a VPN, you can mask your location – so for example, if the VPN has servers in the US, then the services you use believe you’re in that country as well, as opposed to your place of residence. You can essentially make it look like you’re browsing from somewhere else, which allows you to gain access to the content available there.

VPNs are also helpful if you’re looking to mask your identity while using peer-to-peer services such as BitTorrent. All your ISP can see is data going to and from the VPN, but not what’s on the other end. This is useful as it adds privacy, but also because some ISPs throttle BitTorrent traffic.

How do I get a VPN?
The easiest part of understanding a VPN is getting one. There are hundreds of free VPN services out there, though how they handle your data or provide any protection is a big question mark. The thing is, if you’re really concerned about your safety on the Web, you shouldn’t rely on something free.

That’s not to say there aren’t any good free options. Beware though, they have caveats – either in the form of restricted bandwidth, or advertisements. Amongst the various free options, TunnelBear is of the best known and most highly recommended amongst people we know and online – it’s available on Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and even as a Chrome/ Opera extension. The free version gives you 500MB of data a month, which won’t please any video streaming fellas, but is enough to get you through something as simple as a Spotify log-in. Beyond that, you can pay $7.99 per month (about Rs. 530) for unlimited data, if you so desire.

If you’re looking for an even more integrated solution, the Opera browser now has its own built-in VPN solution. It doesn’t have too many countries to pick from, and its speeds are too slow for high-quality streaming, but it’s free. On phones, Opera also has free VPN apps for iOS and Android that use the same underlying technology.

Aside from these, there are a lot of paid options. Although it’s hard to say what’s best, we’d recommend staying away from lesser known ones, and sticking to the big names like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Private Internet Access. All these options above cost between $40 to $100 per year, or about Rs. 2,700 – 6,700. If you’re concerned about being secure, then a paid VPN should be mandatory. This is particularly true, if you tend to travel a lot.

How do I use a VPN?
Actually using the VPN is pretty straightforward. Step one is figuring out which VPN provider you’re going to use. Just about every provider has a detailed guide on its website, but the basics are pretty simple:

  1. Find network settings on your device:
    • Windows 10 – Settings > Network & Internet on Windows 10
    • macOS – System Preferences > Network
    • Android – Settings > More
    • iOS – Settings > General
  2. Head into the option that says VPN, and then configure it using the settings given to you by your VPN provider.
  3. Put in your authentication details, including a username and a password, which you set up on your VPN provider’s site.

That’s pretty much it. Apps on Android and iOS usually make it much easier, and set up everything for you automatically. For example, with Opera VPN, all you need to do is just hit “Connect”. Most popular VPNs also have installers that will save you the hassle of messing around in OS settings manually.

The next time you’re on public Wi-Fi, or need to watch region-locked content, remember to open your VPN app of choice, and turn it on. There can be some side-effects of using one, that you should keep in mind. Since they change your browsing location, apps that rely on your internet for location – say Netflix, or Google search – will go haywire and show you results based on the location you chose in the VPN app.

Of course, if it’s fsociety – or its ilk – that are after you, a VPN is hardly going to protect you. But it’s a good first step, nonetheless.

Photo credit: Icons made by Flat IconsFreepik, and Madebyoliver from www.flaticon.com are licensed by CC 3.0 BY

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