What to look for in a VPN to protect your privacy

How much a VPN can protect your privacy or anonymity really depends upon which VPN you choose. Here are some things to look for in a VPN to best protect your privacy.

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Credit: Jan Alexander via Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

If you haven’t already, then it is time to embrace a virtual private network.

Our lawmakers recently voted to remove regulations which would stop ISPs from selling your online life, manipulating your search results and controlling what you see online. Even if you don’t care about highly targeted advertising being thrown your way, it’s the principle of the profiling. You wouldn’t run a computer without some type of protection such as anti-malware and a firewall; sadly, the day has come when you shouldn’t connect online without using a VPN.

While connected to a VPN, your incoming and outgoing data is encrypted – even though not all VPNs use the same strength of encryption. VPN-encrypted data means your ISP can’t see what you are searching for or where are visiting. If your ISP intends to sell your online profile – everything you do online – then all it can see is that you connect to a VPN.

Yet a VPN doesn’t guarantee you are inside a privacy or anonymity bubble; it doesn’t mean an end to all tracking; while using a VPN, if you login to sites such as Facebook, Netflix or Amazon, then those places know who you are and track you.

Once you decide to jump on the VPN bandwagon, then you need to decide which VPN service to use. Before you do that, you need to decide what is important to you. Privacy? Security? Anonymity? Not all VPNs are created equal.

Thinking about a free VPN? Keep in mind that with most free services YOU are the product. Maybe your browsing habits won't be sold, but the company can't run the VPN for free and has to find some way to make money. There are things to be concerned about other than your profile being sold by your free VPN. You may recall the scandal when people found out that the free Hola VPN browser extension was being used to turn users’ computers into a botnet.

Paying for a VPN naturally means it wouldn't be a free service, so some people might think that automatically implies YOU won't be the product. If you believe that for a certainty, then consider this…YOU pay for your internet connection, but that doesn't mean your browsing habits won't be sold. It also doesn’t guarantee that a VPN doesn’t use third-party tools that track and log what you do.

Do you want a VPN that keeps no logs? As in if Johnny Law comes knocking, then a VPN has nothing to hand over if it keeps no logs. This is an important feature to look for whether you care about privacy, anonymity or security.

Another important feature is a kill-switch, even though different VPNs call it different things. A kill-switch is what it sounds like; if your VPN connection drops, the kill-switch will block or “kill” your internet connection. Without a kill-switch, your computer would automatically connect to the internet as if you had no VPN. If the VPN supports torrenting, P2P, and the connection drops without a kill-switch, then your computer would connect via your real IP.

You also don’t want a VPN that leaks your data. Assuming the VPN provider set up and configured it correctly, then what you do online should be shielded from your ISP. You can find out if you have a leaky VPN via IPLeak. If you pick a VPN that offers a free trial, then make sure you test its leak protection instead of trusting what the VPN says is true.

When you are connected to your VPN, you are using the VPN-assigned IP. When running a leak test, you don’t want to see your ISP’s IP and your actual geolocation on the map; if you do, see if the VPN offers a refund because it is leaking WebRTC requests.

You also do not want to see your ISP’s DNS address as that implies that your ISP can still see what you are doing online, what you are searching for and where you visit. In other words, kick that VPN to the curb and seek a refund. Though not all VPNs offer refunds.

Do you want a VPN which has hundreds of servers located in many different countries, or do you only care about connecting to a server in the U.S.? For some people, the locations of the VPN servers are important; some countries have better privacy laws than others. Many VPNs have hundreds of servers available in numerous countries. If you connect to server in a different country than the language you speak, keep in mind that your searches will reflect that. For example, running searches using English while connected to a server in Germany will still primarily give you search results in German.

Some people are concerned about speed. Is there a bandwidth limit? Some VPNs are better than others, but keep in mind that you’ll take a speed hit whether you use the free Tor browser or paid for a VPN.

How many connections can you have simultaneously? Does the VPN support mobile devices? If you are going to pay for security and privacy, then wouldn’t you like to have the VPN running on all your devices?

Do you have a preference for how you pay for the service? Some people only want a VPN which accepts cryptocurrency such as bitcoin to stay as anonymous as possible.

Don’t know where to start? Why reinvent the wheel? Torrent Freak has been checking up on VPNs for years; here is the 2017 version honing in on which VPNs keep you anonymous. That One Privacy Site has terrific comparison chart covering hundreds of VPNs.

How much privacy, security or anonymity a VPN can give you really depends upon which VPN you select. Before jumping into an annual fee, which is the least expensive way to go about it, you might consider trying out one month on several VPNs. While most folks aren’t too thrilled about taking on another payment, if you care about protecting your online privacy and stopping your ISP from snooping on you and then selling that data, then it’s time to start using a VPN.

Related:
Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
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