Explain VPN to me, and advise me of its worth and possible providers.
November 14, 2014 10:59 AM   Subscribe

How does VPN work? How well does VPN protect me? Should I get a paid VPN account? If so, from what provider?

I understand the very very basics of VPN, but would like to know more. I'm somewhat interested in technical descriptions, although I am only minimally tech-literate.

In the past, while living in the US, I used torrents to access various things online. I used mostly public trackers, and never allowed anything to upload, and I never had any issues. Now, though, I live in the UK, and would like to still access things that were previously available to me with minimal concern. But, the legal environment here seems much different, and I don't want to run afoul of anything. Is using a VPN service a good safeguard?

I am generally interested in keeping my data and whatnot private. I would like to exercise the highest level of internet security and anonymity possible for someone only minimally tech savvy. If that is, in your opinion, accomplished with a VPN, what would you recommend? I'd like to spend as small an amount as possible, but am willing to look into any good choices.

posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel from your computer to the VPN provider's network.

This can be for:
  1. all of your network traffic
  2. some of it (ie: if you're using a "NAT" router, as most home routers are these days, the VPN may only pass traffic that isn't to your local network)
  3. or only specific bits of it (ie: only things destined for your work network go over the VPN)
You're probably asking about #2 (ie: you can still print to your local network printer) or #1 (everything goes out to your VPN provider, when your VPN is turned on you can't print, or use your own network server, or whatever).

In case #1 and #2, a malevolent entity (ie: your ISP, local governments, etc) can see that you're sending traffic to your VPN provider, but can't see what that traffic is. That traffic then appears to the wider Internet as though it originated from that VPN provider.

So if you're concerned about hiding your Torrent activity from other actors, someone trying to track Torrent piracy would come knocking on your VPN's door. You're then at the mercy of your VPN provider's log retention policies and adherence to their stated privacy policy (including things like Warrant Canaries in the face of National Security Letters) as to whether or not they reveal you.
posted by straw at 11:12 AM on November 14, 2014

Think of a VPN as a tunnel (it's often referred as such), in that it connects you from one point to another, while obscuring what is going on inside the tunnel.

The beauty of it is two-fold: first this tunnel is private, between you and whoever is at the other end, nobody can see what is happening in the tunnel, and secondly, anyone at the other end only knows about that end, not where the tunnel began, this lets you fool people into thinking that you are in the USA when you're actually in Canada, or similar, depending on where your VPN begins/ends.

That said, there are ways of finding out that you are using a VPN (e.g. they could check the server logs at whoever is providing the VPN) so while you're actions are private in the open to the web sense, there are ways for the police to dig down, but that's not going to be a concern for anyone except the most diehard of paranoids (those running Wikileaks/Pirate Bay/Silk Road calibre operations), and some VPN providers take pride in not keeping any logging whatsoever.
posted by furtive at 11:14 AM on November 14, 2014

So, if Big Brother is your concern, you'll definitely want to look into VPNs that don't log traffic (or destroy all logs within X few minutes of receipt or something). Many accept Bitcoin, for anonymous payments, although if you are that paranoid you'd better be checking your house for bugs as well, I'd say.

VPNs are regularly reviewed for this sort of security concern, among others. Most charge a small monthly fee. Few will noticeably limit your down/upload times at all.

You can program them to start with your computer, although the one I use (PIA) for some damn reason requires me to give it Admin permission every time, despite every trick I've tried (grrr).

If your major concern is that you don't like your ISP judging your online activities, or some community/state "firewall" nonsense, almost any will serve your purpose.

I've been tsk-tsked by my ISP on one occasion when I had temporarily disabled PIA (and forgotten about that), so I can guarantee they work for that purpose.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:10 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you torrent a lot and are concerned that your other pc activities might interfere with it (shut it down, reboot, etc.), or your ISP has some kind of traffic shaping or limit issues, you may want to pair this with a seedbox.
posted by VikingSword at 1:34 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The folks above me have it right. It's something that I should be using, probably.

As for what is good, I trust Lifehacker: http://lifehacker.com/5935863/five-best-vpn-service-providers
posted by JimBJ9 at 1:34 PM on November 14, 2014

The folks above have given good answers. I only want to add a bit of emphasis here and there:

First, you absolutely want a VPN service that keeps no logs. If someone comes banging on their door asking who was torrenting file X at time Y, you want them to honestly say they have no way to know.

Torrent Freak examined a few for this back last month.

Second, you probably want some service not primarily hosted in the US.

Lastly, while using a VPN is probably sufficient to shield you from people looking to sue you over torrenting, it is not sufficient to shield you from the NSA, or its Chinese equivalent. If you are downloading spy thrillers, you'll be fine. If you are in a spy thriller, not so much. If your situation is in between, it's hard to say, but I'd err on the side of caution.
posted by tyllwin at 3:58 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

For reference, I'm in Chicago, not the UK. I've used privateinternetaccess vpn for about a year and a half or so, and I like it just fine. I've never had any issues with it. It doesn't slow my speed, costs something like seven bucks a month (totally worth it), and it starts when my computer starts and remains on all the time.
I learned about it on AskMe, and I'm glad I did. This brief testimony is my payforward for that good advice. Thanks, internet!
posted by heyho at 4:02 PM on November 14, 2014

Will add a quick additional plug for private internet access, been using them for several years without issue. Although I will commiserate with Broom above re: the permission popup. I have no other complaints about it though. I like that, should you need to, it lets you pick the region where your tunnel's exit is located.
posted by jhs at 4:22 PM on November 14, 2014

Seconding tyllwin's recommendation of Torrent Freak's Which VPN Services Take Your Anonymity Seriously. They seem to be continuously updating it at random intervals.
posted by doctor tough love at 11:27 PM on November 14, 2014

OMFG, jhs, I just figured it out!

DEINSTALL the 64-bit version and replace it with the 32-bit version!

(This came to me after solving a months-long problem with 64-bit Java... by installing 32-bit Java instead. PIA uses Ruby, not Java, but it worked instantly for me!)
posted by IAmBroom at 9:25 PM on November 16, 2014

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