Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing
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.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 23 Aug 2011
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing (Posted: 23 Aug 2011)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved