Why not go outside and shout out your bank details? You could even hand out copies of your house keys to strangers, and invite them to rifle through your belongings whilst you’re out.
It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is essentially what many of us are doing when we use the internet. Our private information, conversations and even the data on our computers can be tracked and monitored as we browse, shop, chat, etc. online. Websites and hackers can instantly know which sites you’ve been visiting or where you are located, and it’s surprisingly easy to do.
Firewalls, anti-virus and other protective software can help to reduce this risk, but if their barricades should fail then your information is still at risk. So, what can be done?
Virtual Private Networks (or VPN’s, as they will now be called) essentially help you to hide your personal data when using the internet. They do this by rerouting your internet connection through one of many servers, whilst also encrypting your information, making it incredibly hard to trace your whereabouts or activities.
Think of it like this: you’re in your white car and you’re being followed by a police helicopter. You drive into a tunnel, where thousands of other white cars are also driving. The tunnel splits off into more tunnels, and all the cars emerge at the other side. The police helicopter has no way of knowing which car you’re in!
Beyond protecting your identity online, there are also other benefits to using a VPN or Proxy. You can also access restricted websites anonymously. Since your connection is put through servers around the world, your computer or device also appears to be in that country. So, if you’re in the USA but are using a British server, your computer will appear to be in Britain. As such, you’ll be able to access any sites which are normally only accessible from Britain, such as BBC iPlayer.
You might also wish to exchange files or hold online meetings without the risk of being tracked, particularly if sensitive information is being shared. VPN services can help with this too, and there are many features which can assist in collaborative projects which you’d prefer to remain secure.
What's the difference between a proxy server and a VPN? Well, they essentially do the same thing, except that a VPN encrypts your data (making it harder to steal, and therefore safer to use). VPN's do, however, have the potential to keep records on your activities. The best services offer a balance between accessibility, security and anonymity. The majority of the sites we've reviewed offer secure VPN's and won't keep any logs on what you've been doing online.
We’ve explored a great range of VPN and Proxy websites in the hope of offering you the information you need to make an informed decision on which one to go for. We use a star rating system to compare each service, based on several important factors. You’ll also find a list of the costs and features for each site, as well as an editor’s verdict which outlines the pros and cons of each VPN available.
To better understand our reviews, and therefore to more easily find the site which will suit you, we consider the following factors.
A VPN needs to be reliable. If it should fail, your private information and files could be at risk. We consider how reliable the service is, as well as its speed and other allowances (including whether you can exchange large files, or use torrent services). Several tools, including kill switches, may be offered to secure your system when a connection is lost. These tools will automatically stop particular pieces of software if the VPN fails, or may even try to restart the connection automatically using another server. If you’re looking for a system which protects your information in a variety of ways, look out for these features. On the other hand, if you want a fast service which allows you to exchange large files, look out for protocols which support that.
- Encryption standards:
Again, security is key. We look at the encryption standards offered by each service, including how many servers they have and how many locations they’re based in. Your data will be encrypted, or even double encrypted, as well as run through “tunnels” (essentially like the car tunnels we described, except for digital information). Since VPN websites are designed to encrypt your information, most perform quite well in this area.
- VPN protocol options:
In laymen terms, protocol options are essentially “the kinds of connections available.” The more protocol options there are, the greater freedom you have in deciding how to connect to the internet. These options all have acronyms (such as PPTP) which give some clue as to what they are capable of. If you’re completely new to using a VPN then you probably won’t need to worry too much about protocol options as often the software knows which kind of protocols you’ll require. However, if you wish to switch between them manually to gain greater control over your connection, you may want to look for services which provide a greater variety of protocol options, as well as the means to allow you to move between them. The most popular VPN protocol options are IPSec, L2TP, PPTP and SSL, but you’ll find more available. If you wish to know more about each one, it’s wise to research them before changing your options.
- Ease of setup / use:
If you’re new to using VPN services then you’ll want a system which is simple to use. Finding a proxy service which allows you to connect easily, switch between locations and choose additional options without much fuss, will be a necessity. VPN software can become quite complex when you start to consider the various protocol options and more in depth features, so think about the balance between complexity and ease of use. If you’re pretty aware of the terminology and how things work in VPN, you might wish to look for a service with more complicated features, but hopefully without there being too much of a drop in usability.
- Customer Support:
If something goes wrong, you’ll want the support of someone who knows what they’re talking about. If you know your way around a VPN then this may be less important, but you’ll still want information available for the more complex issues. Look out for websites which offer expansive FAQs and guides, as well as email support. If you think you’ll need instant help from a member of the support team, try finding a site which offers live chat support.
- Value for Money:
Prices can vary considerably, but ‘cheaper’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’. In fact, free services tend to be very limited (in terms of bandwidth allowances and features), whilst the most expensive packages aren’t necessarily suitable for everyone. We provide a breakdown of prices and discuss the potential use of each package (and who it is most suited to) in our editor’s verdicts, so don’t simply go for a deal based solely on price, as it may not be the best service for you in the long run.
Well, a world of secure, private internet use awaits you! Check out a few of our reviews and see what VPN services have to offer, then get connected!