With the advent of mandatory metadata retention laws having now gone into effect, George Orwell must be turning in his grave.
However, while it’s disappointing that our politicians don’t actually work for us any more (be sure to kick both major parties to the kerb at the next election) in the mean time you can help protect your privacy — at least as far as internet usage goes — by using a VPN.
Once the domain of educational and business networks, VPNs are increasingly being used to protect people’s privacy and in some cases lives in those countries even more draconian than ours.
The concept is simple: tunnel to an existing remote network, and route all traffic through it. Along with encryption, it becomes very hard to track your browsing, email and messaging without access to the remote servers.
There are a few features you should look for: whether the service logs activity, though ultimately you have to take their word for it; whether there are Australian servers, so you can use the internet with minimal performance loss; and if it passes the DNS leak test, which is another way you can be tracked by seeing which sites you ‘look up’ on the internet.
And while you can game over a VPN, you probably don’t want to for latency-sensitive games as there will always be an overhead.
Note also that many VPN services limit or restrict file-sharing (and those that don’t may log data), usually to cover their own legal commitments.
There are many services available, so here’s our snapshot of some of the more familiar and less well known products and how they fare.
CyberGhost VPN touts over 500 servers across 30 countries including Australia to serve your VPN needs. It also boasts a simplistic interface with a big ‘power on’ button to automatically connect to the CyberGhost VPN network.
By default there are a few tweakable options, including ‘anti-fingerprinting’ to set a browser’s language to the server’s origin, and editing the browser OS and version string. You can also try and prevent website tracking and whether these features should be enabled with HTTPS traffic as well.
Beyond this, all data is encrypted with 256-bit AES and there are no bandwidth limits, even with the free version.
There are three plans on offer — Free, Premium and Premium Plus.
The free plan is free indefinitely, but you have to wait in a queue to join free servers, as well as the number of servers you can access. The speed is also reduced compared to the standard Premium plan, which is limited to one device. The Premium Plus plan extends this to five simultaneous devices.
Device support covers all the bases with clients for Windows, MacOS X, iOS, and Android. Linux is supported through Linux’s own OpenVPN toolset.
While the native CyberGhost clients use OpenVPN the service also supports IPSec, L2TP and PPTP are also supported.
Finally CyberGhost passed the DNS leak test by utilising its own DNS servers, and the service claims that no logs are stored.
Verdict: Lots of servers and so easy to use your grandma could use it.
Price: US$6-11 per month
From: Cyberghost VPN
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
As with most of the other VPN products we look at here, VyperVPN uses OpenVPN with 256-bit AES encryption as the protocol, however in the options you can also choose IPSEC, PP2P, and Vyper’s own Chameleon protocol which is based off OpenVPN but hides the fact the traffic is VPN traffic.
Vyper states this is useful in countries like China where use of VPNs for circumvention may be prevented.
Vyper has its own DNS servers, and passed the DNS leak test, as well as some other welcome security features including stopping all internet traffic when VyperVPN is disconnected, automatically reconnecting on disconnect, and for advanced users the ability to tailor OpenVPN parameters.
As far as plans go there’s a free service that has a limit of 500MB bandwidth and 2 simultaneous connections, but otherwise is unrestricted, with the standard fully-featured VyperVPN Pro plan providing unlimited data for US$99.96 annually.
Platform support covers Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, versions even for your router and your TV. VyperVPN also claims no logging of its VPN service or its DNS servers. Servers are available in Australia, too.
Using your account to log in allows you to manage your service as well as add other Vyper services which include Dump Truck online storage and Cypher encrypted messaging.
Verdict: Pricey, but feature rich and ticks all the boxes.
Price: US$7-10 per month
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
This includes being able to select a preferred server, the protocol (which includes OpenVPN, L2TP, PPTP and SSTP), and toggling Auto Reconnect and Kill Switch options (which automatically closes select applications if the VPN link is lost).
By default ibVPN doesn’t enable its ibDNS service, you have to manually start it, and it passes the leak test.
It can also be used independently, and can be purchased as a separate product as a means to bypass geoblocking (for e.g., streaming media from BBC UK or US Netflix from Australia).
In terms of plans there’s a free trial that lasts six hours, but is otherwise unrestricted, along with two ibVPN plans capping at the Ultimate VPN price of $US58.08 for a year.
Another plan provides just the ipDNS service for streaming, while a fourth plan curiously is designed for torrent users.
ibVPN claims 94 servers across 39 countries, including servers in Australia, and while it states it doesn’t log internet usage it does plainly say that connection and bandwidth data is kept for seven days.
Clients are available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, Linux and some routers (including DD-WRT based routers).
Verdict: Not as many servers to choose from, but it’s also less expensive.
Price: US$3-5 per month
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Easily the coolest VPN client we’ve seen, making use of a grizzly bear meme to keep it light and friendly. Any tool that features lasers coming out of bear eyes destroying trackers during setup gets a thumbs up in our book.
The interface is as simple as it gets — choose a country, and turn it on.
Optional settings allow you to enable ‘Maul Trackers’ mode, a ‘Vigilant’ mode that ensures all network activity is stopped in the event a connection is lost and restarted (eg if you’re using an unreliable Wi-Fi connection), and a TCP override mode which forces TCP in place of UDP in case ISPs throttle UDP traffic.
You can also define inclusion or exclusion lists of websites that should or should not use the VPN if you dig into Tunnelbear’s ‘Intellibear’ mode (for example, adding your bank’s website to the exclusion).
Plans are divided into ‘Little’ bear, a free 500MB per month plan; Giant bear for $US7 a month and supports up to five devices; and Grizzly Bear, which is exactly the same plan but billed year to save money, coming in at US$50 a year.
Tunnelbear claims no logs are kept, OpenVPN is used for the protocol, and all data is encrypted with 256-bit AES.
On the surface Tunnelbear fails the DNS leak test, which while not utilising your ISP’s DNS servers, instead uses Google DNS servers (which are going to be logged). However TunnelBear’s FAQ explains that DNS requests are sent via TunnelBear, and so will appear to come from TunnelBear’s servers.
Clients are available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Android as well as Chrome.
Verdict: Despite the basic interface, Tunnelbear is versatile and effective.
Price: US$4-7 per month
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Hide My Ass!
The client certainly isn’t as flash as something like VyperVPN or Tunnelbear, and despite the range of options in the left menu and digging deeper into the settings, doesn’t offer much more than a tunnelling VPN service.
The main options you can toggle are randomly changing IP address on a schedule, and binding particular applications to your VPN IP so they only operate when the VPN is active.
A connection log is also visible, though this isn’t particularly handy for most people, and the ability to choose between OpenVPN and PPTP protocols. Beyond this the most useful feature is the Speed Guide that shows the servers closest to you.
Hidemyass! doesn’t have its own DNS servers and it failed the DNS leak test, with some requests being diverted to OpenDNS and others to our ISP’s DNS servers, meaning websites we visit will be logged according to the ISP’s policies.
Clients are available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. Connection with Linux can be managed through Linux’s OpenVPN tools.
Hidemyass! offers a number of other services, including anonymous email, a web proxy and business VPN.
It’s one of the more expensive of the VPNs we looked at here, with its biggest advantage being the scope of servers available, and which include a number in Australia.
Verdict: Another one for more advanced users, and a little on the expensive side.
Price: US$6-11 per month
From: Hide My Ass!
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
When first running the PureVPN client it prompts whether you want to use the service for streaming, privacy, or file sharing among other options and pre-configures the client accordingly (for example, not all servers support file sharing, so you won’t connect to these).
Apart from this the interface is clean and simple, with a bandwidth graph showing usage. Servers can be selected from a drop down and, when selecting a country, will try for the fastest server.
Options are few but include auto-reconnect on connection loss, a kill switch to disable all internet activity if the connection is lost, the option to change protocol (and which includes L2TP, SSTP, PPTP and IKEv), and the ability to use weaker encryption or disable it entirely for faster performance.
PureVPN failed the DNS leak test even when choosing ‘Switch to Secure DNS’ under the Advanced options, and which requires running PureVPN with Administrator privileges.
Though the price seems good some of the extra services, such as NAT firewall or Smart DNS for streaming media, are sometimes offered by other VPNs free. The 12-month plan comes to US$50 and the service claims 500+ servers in 141 countries including Australia.
Clients are available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android as well as compatibility with a range of routers. It also claims no logging of any sort.
Verdict: Simple interface, essential features and cheap if paid annually.
Price: US$4-10 per month
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Private Internet Access
Instead, right-clicking on the program in the notification area allows you to connect to servers around the world, and you’re done.
Settings include enabling DNS leak protection (using its own DNS servers, and it passed the DNS leak test), IPv6 leak protection, a VPN kill switch to stop network activity on a disconnect and port forwarding — useful if doing file sharing.
Beyond this you can set the encryption level for data, authentication, and the handshake, in order to set your preference of security vs speed, and then that’s about it as far as settings go.
Private Internet Access claims a whopping 2,897 servers spread across 20 countries, and includes servers in Australia in Sydney and Melbourne.
It also claims a no logging policy, and features an ‘NSA Re-education’ page on the site that outlines the risk to information as seen by PIA.
Protocols support cover OpenVPN, PPTP, and L2TP and there are clients are available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Android, and Ubuntu Linux along with instructions for configuring it for some routers.
Plans start at US$7 a month, or US$40 if paid 12-months in advance, for up to five simultaneous devices making it one of the cheaper products we looked at here.
Verdict: Basic interface but cheap while providing a good selection of regions.
Price: US$7 per month
From: Private Internet Access