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What’s a VPN and Why Should You Care?
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are becoming an essential tool for Internet users looking for an added degree of privacy and security, as well as access to geo-blocked websites. For some, a VPN is simply a means of communicating and accessing information that needs to be encrypted on a business network. For others—especially those living in countries such as China—these services are necessary for even the most basic services, such as checking email, due to the ridiculous degree of online censorship.
Ok, but what is a VPN? And what does it do?
A VPN is a network connection that encrypts online traffic between the device you are using and the VPN provider’s servers, thereby protecting it from any prying eyes on the Internet. This is done by running a client program on your computer or smartphone that links to the server and creates a private connection. For example, if the VPN server is based in the United States and you are surfing the web from Malaysia, your “physical location” (actual IP address) will appear to be in the United States.
Many will no doubt read this and conclude that a VPN is nothing more than a proxy. This would be a mistake. There are a number of notable differences between the two, with the creation of an “encrypted tunnel” being perhaps the most critical.
In general, it is best to choose a server location closer to your actual region (instead of the other side of the world), as this usually results in a better connection. Many VPN programs will even display a list of countries (as well as their Internet connection speeds) to choose from.
Additionally, you can change or select certain protocols when connecting, as each offer different levels and methods of security. Some work better than others, and so it is always best to choose a VPN that offers a variety.
Beyond the practicalities of day-to-day business, socializing, or entertainment via the web, VPN usage has all but exploded in an era of increased awareness of just how invasive big brother can be when it comes to your privacy and how collected data is used/interpreted.
However, not all VPNs are created equal. There is an ever increasing variety of services—both free and paid—to choose from. Some deliver what they promise, while others seem to do the opposite by keeping logs of your data, which could potentially be matched to your IP address.
Experiences using a VPN largely depend on your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and the country you are in, but having tried several free services in the past I’ve found that most either do not work at all or (perhaps unsurprisingly) result in an incredibly slow connection.
Others fared slightly better, providing marginally better speeds when surfing, but would constantly lose connection and fail to reconnect automatically. Some of this success (or lack thereof) may simply depend on your ISP and there could possibly be a workaround for more savvy users. I, unfortunately, am not one of those users.
As for privacy, this is most likely the primary concern of many considering a VPN. As well it should be.
In many cases, you will need to pay to have access to a service that works consistently without sacrificing connection speed. Generally speaking, these paid VPNs will offer more reliable customer service along with (in theory) a higher degree of responsibility to provide an added layer of anonymity to the users.
Do your homework in this regard.
In an attempt to do exactly that, as well as shed some light on the industry in general along with the nuts ’n bolts of services offered, we here at knowmadic news looked more closely at ExpressVPN, one of the top ranked VPNs out there.
Here is what David Lang, Communications Manager at ExpressVPN, had to say:
Where is your company based?
Our company is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and operates according to BVI laws.
Why did the founders decide to jump into the VPN world?
Our founders are strong believers in online privacy rights, and it makes sense for them to create a service which delivers that to users.
Who would you recommend to use your services?
Users who do not want third parties snooping on their online behaviour… Or customers who want to unblock geo-restricted content.
What makes you different from your competitors?
ExpressVPN has developed apps for iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows and has over 97 server locations around the world. All our apps are configured with OpenVPN UDP by default. Alternatively, we also provide OpenVPN TCP, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, and PPTP. With our 24-hour round-the-clock support team, we believe in providing the best possible experience to our users. We’re also the only VPN service to provide a no-questions-asked 30-day money back guarantee. Some other VPN claims to offer this, but their terms are littered with void measures.
Do friends/family wonder if you’re in a nefarious or underground industry? How do you reply?
No. Internet privacy is a topic which is gaining more and more prominence. We believe that one day the conversation topic will be “Why AREN’T you using a VPN.”
Do you keep data logs of your users?
ExpressVPN never keeps traffic logs as well as any other data that might enable someone to match an IP and time stamp back to a user.
Has your company been solicited by any governments looking for data?
That’s the benefit of working with a VPN provider that doesn’t keep logs.
Where is the industry going?
VPN interest has grown rapidly as more and more governments try to monitor, censor, or otherwise control the Internet. You can tell by the amount of interest in mainstream news articles that the general public is becoming increasingly concerned about their online privacy. So for that reason there is no reason to suggest otherwise, that the VPN industry is growing leaps and bounds. We’re seeing this change a lot in social media as well, where users are asking more questions and seeking answers from knowledgeable sources more than they were say, a year ago.
Is it possible to be fully anonymous when using a VPN service such as ExpressVPN?
A VPN probably accomplishes 90% of the job. We also like to recommend using these tools: https://pack.resetthenet.org/
I frequently lose my VPN connection when online in China (having to manually click reconnect several times daily). What could be the reason for this?
Likely related to the Great Firewall. We think that we do a better job than most VPNs in providing a stable service for users in China. China has implemented many prevention measures over the past couple of years, and ExpressVPN is largely unaffected as of yet.
Do you see what your users are looking at? And do most just surf porn sites?
Probably “yes” on the porn question, but we have no way of knowing that.
So there you have it. Whether you are a hardcore downloader, digital nomad, or just an average Internet user who simply wants to take a defensive stance in regards to privacy protection, a VPN seems to be the way to go. Having relied on various VPNs for approximately a year now (I was a relative latecomer in this regard), cannot imagine not having one now.