VPNs for Absolute Beginners – A Handy Privacy Guide

Geoff Walters Informative Internet Guides

Online privacy has become a major topic of discussion in recent years. With ISPs tracking personal information and hackers constantly snooping for data, staying safe on the web is more important than ever.

There is a number of easy to use security solutions that help protect your privacy, the most reliable of which are virtual private networks. VPNs are safe, comprehensive, and inexpensive, and they’re not as complicated as they sound.

ISPs and Your Data

Every time you connect to the internet you send information through an internet service provider (ISP). These companies act as messengers who retrieve the information you’re looking for. The data arrives in packets.

Each packet is stamped by a unique string of numbers called an IP address that’s assigned to you the moment you connect. Every action you make, every e-mail you read, every video you watch is tagged with that IP address, making it easy for unscrupulous parties to monitor your online activity.

Data is sent to the ISP without encryption and gets saved for later. Because service providers have no regulations forcing them to keep this information secure your private data is very vulnerable. 

With recent legislation, ISPs can sell any data it collects about you including detailed Internet activity without your permission. 

 This holds true for nearly every ISP you connect to, including public Wi-Fi spots, cellphone networks, and even at your home.

ISP’s insist they have no desire to profit off of your Internet activity.

Thankfully the FCC still has some of the tools needed to fight for consumers. Thanks to Net Neutrality rules put in place in 2015. Everything will change if the Whitehouse gets its way.

VPNs to the Rescue

A Virtual private network sits between your device and the ISP you’re connecting to and creates a tunnel for your data. When you go online with a VPN, information is automatically encrypted, and you receive an IP address that is not associated with you or your Internet service provider.

The encrypted data passes through an ISP as normal, only instead of your name and location, all they see is a string of random numbers and letters being sent to a VPN server.

There are a number of benefits to using a VPN:

Your location is hidden – Instead of receiving an IP address associated with your local Internet service provider, you get an IP from a VPN. Web sites can no longer identify your real location, adding an extra layer of anonymity.

ISPs can’t track you or sell your information – VPNs encrypt your data before it leaves your device. By the time it reaches your ISP, all they see are random numbers and letters. Even when this information is saved it can’t be decrypted.

Public Wi-Fi is safer with a VPN – VPNs aren’t just for home use. With a VPN active on your phone or laptop you can connect to public hotspots without fear of leaking private data. If you travel a lot, a VPN is a necessity.

Safely use Kodi and BitTorrent – Kodi and BitTorrent users should always use a VPN whenever they download or stream content. When it comes to Torrenting and Kodi VPN services are not created equal. Make sure yours fully supports both methods of media consumption.

Region locked content is accessible – Many VPN users take full advantage of the ability to change their virtual location to bypass blocked or censored content in their country.

If something isn’t available to you due to geo-restrictions, simply log into your VPN, change your location, and try again. This is useful if you travel overseas and can’t access content from home due to location restrictions.

Are VPNs Safe?

Sending data to a VPN in a foreign country may sound like a gamble, but the truth is a good VPN is much safer than a standard internet service provider.

VPN safety boils down to two things: encryption and accountability. In fact, the best VPNs offer such high levels of security that they can’t access your encrypted data, even if they wanted to.

VPN companies are in the privacy business and have every incentive to live up to those promises. Only encrypted data passes through their servers, not your name, location, or personal information.

The VPN can theoretically decrypt the data if they want, but with a firm zero-log policy in place, it would be terrible for business once people find out the truth. A trustworthy service takes your private, scrambled data and passes it through their servers. Nothing more.

Of course, you cannot trust your info to just any VPN service. There are plenty of providers who are in the business of taking and selling data from unwitting users.

Before subscribing to a VPN, do some not for profit research to make sure they’re a reputable company. As a general rule, never use a free VPN service. They have no obligation to protect your privacy and will most likely be selling your data on the side to pay the bills.

What Devices Do VPNs Protect?

When you sign up for a VPN service you’ll see links to download their custom software. A VPN can only offer protection if you run that software on the device you’re currently using.

Most operating systems have a built-in VPN client, and there are some good open source VPN clients. If your chosen VPN provider does not have custom software for a device ask them what software they recommend.

Installing a VPN on your desktop won’t protect your tablet, you’ll need to use a separate app for that. For real privacy, every device you use to connect to the internet should have VPN software installed and active, without exception.

Some technical solutions bypass this slight limitation. Many VPN providers offer software or configuration tutorials that let you secure your connection from the router, providing blanket coverage to every device that connects to your home internet.

If you are feeling adventurous and don’t mind messing with router configurations, this is an excellent way to ensure everything stays safe.

Finding a Good VPN

It’s easy to get locked in analysis paralysis when searching for a reliable VPN.

There are so many technical details to sift through, privacy policy features to consider, and personal preferences to add to the VPN equation it can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the process can be whittled down to a few key features:

Logging Policy – The most important question you should ask about a VPN is this: what’s their logging policy?

Even encrypted data can be untangled to find personal information, but if that data is never stored it’s impossible to retrieve, even for governments or security firms. Make sure your VPN has a well-defined logging policy, no exceptions.

Jurisdiction – One of the more changeable aspects of VPN shopping is which country the company is registered in. Depending on the local laws, they might be required to store or share certain information collected from their customers.

These rules can shift without notice, which is why most privacy oriented VPN services are headquartered in places like Germany, Iceland, Canada, and the US. 

Don’t be fooled by the hype. VPN services registered in places like Panama, Seychelles, Belize, BVI, Isle of Man, Cyprus or Hong Kong. If their staff works from the USA, they have to obey USA law. 

Geolocation – If bypassing censored or blocked content is a big concern, make sure your VPN offers a broad range of servers located in different countries.

Some providers limit the number of times you can change country locations in a day, so make sure you’re free to switch whenever you like.

Software Options – You need to run your VPN provider’s software on every device connected to the Internet.

Make sure they support your computer’s operating system as well as mobile devices and things like Chromebooks or Blackberrys with either native apps or via 3rd party open source apps.

File Restrictions – Some VPNs block certain files or file sharing services, especially BitTorrent downloads and Kodi. If you plan on being a heavy Kodi or torrent user, make sure you can freely download and stream that content before signing up.

Speed and Bandwidth – Speed is a primary concern with VPNs. Because data is being encrypted and re-routed, this can cause some serious bottlenecks. 

Try several servers close to you and perform proper speed tests to make sure their network is not oversold.

To make matters worse, some VPN providers put a cap on how fast you can download or even slow your speeds once you reach a certain threshold. For best results, make sure your VPN offers unlimited, unmonitored traffic. Make sure their Terms of service state they do not store traffic totals.

Privacy and Anonymity – A VPN does not provide absolute privacy by default. If staying anonymous is your top concern, look for a VPN that accepts cryptocurrency payments and use it in combination with TOR.

Customer Support – Although VPNs are easier than ever to use, it’s still a good idea to make sure your VPN provider has a robust set of tutorials to help you get things installed and running. 24×7 customer support is also a nice bonus and can help you get out of a bind when you need it.

If you have Linux experience and want to roll your own VPN we recommend Streisand if you want to roll your own cloud (like google drive, docs etc) and VPN try Sovereign they are both free of charge and have easy step by step tutorials.

If you follow this guide we are confident you will make an informed choice when vetting VPN providers. If you have any questions or suggestions let us know