Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing

Category: Security

Who is watching when you travel the information highway? Your Internet Service Provider, hackers, even your government could possibly be monitoring your every move and transaction online. Personal VPN services offer a solution...

What Is a Personal VPN?

Depending on where and how you access the Internet, your web usage may not be as private as you think. You may already know the dangers of going online in a coffee shop via public wifi. Perhaps you travel for business and need remote access to your office computer. You may live in a country where the government restricts or monitors web access.

I wrote about the use of proxy servers for anonymous Web browsing a few weeks ago, in my article I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watch Me. Briefly, the perceived problem is that your IP address is delivered to every website you visit, theoretically enabling the tracking of your Web activities. A proxy server substitutes its IP address for yours, fetching the Web content for you and keeping your IP address hidden. If you use an encrypted (https) connection for online banking and other personal transactions, that information is secure. But that's not enough privacy for some people, because most of what we do online is not encrypted.
Personal VPN

The information you send and receive can still be read by online snoops, including your ISP, the operators of network equipment that handles your traffic, and "bad guys" who sniff traffic on the public Internet looking for sensitive personal information. Personal VPN (virtual private network) services solve this problem, in part.

So-called "personal VPN" services claim to be the ultimate in anonymous, private Web browsing. Although they use the term "VPN," they are only loosely connected to Virtual Private Networks. Here is how personal VPN services fit into the anonymous Web browsing scene.

How Does a Personal VPN Work?

Using the same Internet protocols that are used by corporate VPNs, a personal VPN service creates an encrypted "tunnel" on the Internet between itself and your computer. Information transmitted through this tunnel cannot be deciphered by third parties... at least, not without a prohibitive amount of resources and time. But that tunnel is only part of the trip your information takes.

Personal VPN services are always mated with proxy servers. After the VPN gateway receives your HTTP request, your IP address is stripped out and a proxy IP address is substituted. The request is sent on to the target website. The target's response is forwarded back to you through the encrypted VPN tunnel. Note that the communication between the proxy server and the target website is not encrypted at all!

"That's OK," say the anonymizing services, "because no one can tie your IP address to the unencrypted content." But if the content happens to include your name, address, or Social Security Number, then who needs your IP address? You still have to treat a so-called "personal VPN" connection as if it is vulnerable to eavesdropping, because it is!

A personal VPN service protects you only from "nearby" eavesdroppers; that is, from people listening in on the connection between you and the personal VPN service. That might include the guy at the next table in Starbucks, or whoever is in room 305 at the hotel where you are staying. Yes, it might include the government, secretly monitoring your communications with the help of your ISP. If you are seriously worried about such possibilities, then a personal VPN/proxy service may be for you.

Choosing a Personal VPN

Commercial providers of such services include Witopia.com (starting at $39.95 per year); StrongVPN.com ($7 per month, $55 per year); and ProXPN.com ($10/month or $50/6 months). Prices vary depending on the strength of the encryption you choose, bandwidth allotment, and other factors.

There are a lot of free personal VPN services, too: BestFreeVPN.com, VPNReactor.com, and MacroVPN.com are some examples. The free services generally use the least secure VPN protocols, limit bandwidth, and prohibit high-bandwidth using traffic such as Bittorrent. They may also be intolerably slow at times, because they are free.

I would not called Witopia or its competitors true "VPN services" because in a real VPN, all lines of communication between all nodes are encrypted. However, there is one free software package that enables you to set up your own true VPN with full end-to-end encryption. LogMeIn Hamachi lets you can create a VPN gateway giving you secure access to your desktop or entire LAN. It also supports mesh networking that allows invited guests to directly connect to each other securely.

You'll have to assess your own need for a personal VPN; I'd argue that most people don't. If you travel often, and you MUST have secure access to your office; if you live under a repressive government, or (for whatever reason) you just don't want anyone to know what you do online, it might be a good idea.

Do you have something to say about personal VPNs? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing"

Posted by:

Phil
23 Aug 2011

How does Inprivate Browsing under I.E Tools work? Does it disguise your web browing and work like an anonymous VPN?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Good question, but the answer is no. See http://askbobrankin.com/private_browsing.html


Posted by:

John
23 Aug 2011

For a little bit more money, there's a company I use called "Hide My Ass." I signed up through an affiliate who was very helpful in answering all my questions prior to purchasing. The web address is: http://www.bestvpnever.com/ - no extra charge when compared to the HMA site. There are servers in over 30 countries and you'll get support for OpenVPN, L2TP, and PPTP protocols. The software installation was a breeze. One feature I especially like about this is their speed test. You can check the speed of as many different servers as you want although it will automatically set the 10 nearest locations automatically. There are no bandwidth limitations. You can pay by the month, 6 months or year, and there's a 30-day money back guarantee.


Posted by:

duane
23 Aug 2011

Our building has WIFI with individual passwords. I imagine that everyone in the building up to the first node shares the same internet connection. I would think that a VPN would be required to keep the Firefox plug-ins from monitoring your traffic to the first node.


Posted by:

Tom S.
23 Aug 2011

Bob, So now I've been 'tagged' by my ISP (Cablevision) a 2nd time for d/l copy-write material (t.v. program) and threatened to have my service discontinued. Therefore I am in dire need for some anonymous surfing, and wondering if you have ever used any of those services that you mention in your article. Any assistance is appreciated.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It seems like a better plan would be to stop downloading copyrighted materials. Is watching some TV show worth risking your internet connection?


Posted by:

Luc
23 Aug 2011

How does one really manage to snoop the Internet trafic ?


Posted by:

leisa
23 Aug 2011

Hi bob I'm wondering where you got logmein hitachi "free" when i went to their site it costs $199... it said it was only a free trial. What do you think of BT Guard as an alternative?

EDITOR'S NOTE: My understanding is that Hamachi "unmanaged mode" is free for non-commercial use.


Posted by:

Roger
24 Aug 2011

I checked with LogMeIn about Hamachi, and I heard that Hamachi doesn't perform the function of a proxy server; so, it seems to do only one-half of what is needed for a completely secure personal VPN. Is that your understanding? If not, do you know how to set up a proxy server that works with Hamachi?


Posted by:

DJ Rose
25 Aug 2011

Re: Hide My Ass
The site is nearly unuseable, there's a medical based user that has most of the proxys set aside to itself. You spend an hour each time going through numbers until you find a free one. That could last a few days or just hours. The sort function is supposed to let you exclude them but it never works. Somewhere between half and three quarters is useless.


Posted by:

John
25 Aug 2011

@DJRose: I don't understand what you mean. Hide My Ass offers free proxy servers and a paid service. My experience is with the paid service. Their software does all the configuration for you so there's no need to look for numbers. The only times I've "had" to choose another server is a result of load balancing the servers, and even so, it won't prevent you from connecting with the server you originally selected.


Posted by:

Howard
30 Aug 2011

I use Witopia and it is excellent. I can choose from over 70 portals of entry from around the world on any continent. I have checked it with 4 ip tracker sites and they always id my ip as the one provided by Wytopia. I had 1 tech ? and they responded the next day. I just like my privacy and I don't like anything that hints of Big Brother. Best money I ever spent for the internet.


Posted by:

Alex
31 May 2012

I use PirateRay to download and surf anonymously by hiding my IP and connecting to secure encrypted SSH channels.


Posted by:

john
27 May 2013

can you tell me.is rdp better than vpn? thank you


Posted by:

VPN Service
05 Feb 2016

Using your real IP address as you browse and download on the internet on your own Android phone and tablet means that you'll probably find some limitations positioned on you. What these restrictions are will depend on your location on the planet. Some places like China, do not require lots of discussion - you simply can't access much which has a Chinese IP. Other places like Europe and North American still block sites, many linked to torrents and media streaming or downloading. If your IP may be the problem, whether sites be blocked from your ISP or by the foreign web servers, an international IP address on Android can unblock these sites.


Posted by:

Shannon
22 Apr 2016

Hey Bob! I am in complete agreement with you. I use Hide My IP that masks your IP to avoid other network users to access your data. It allows you to access the internet with a different ip address so you can remain anonymous. Free VPNs create a whole bunch of hassles and aren't secured too.


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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing (Posted: 23 Aug 2011)
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