The coffee shop’s free wi-fi seemed safe and the double-espresso hit the spot. Unbeknownst to you and your fellow caffeinistas, the hipster in the corner hiding behind his notebook had hacked into the wi-fi data stream, collecting credit card numbers, email passwords and who knows what else.
With cybercriminals hiding behind every server, the safest way to surf is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Instead of your most precious secrets traveling over the open Internet, a VPN scrambles the data traffic through encryption so that only you and the server at the other end can read it.
As its name implies, a VPN is Virtual because it exists only in cyberspace; it’s Private because everything that enters and leaves your computer is encrypted, making it a secure Network. It can keep your communications secret in places like China and Russia, where digital eavesdropping is close to a national pastime.
Got secrets? Check into the company’s location and logging policy because if the VPN provider logs usage and is US-based, the National Security Agency and others can snoop. Using the right VPN can not only secure your communications but can provide peace of mind that your data and identity are out of the reach of prying eyes.
Using a VPN can also let you appear to be anywhere in the world that has a VPN server to connect with, allowing the streaming of content in unapproved places. While traveling in China, Azerbaijan and other places, I’ve logged onto a US-based VPN server to watch Hulu and Netflix programs rather than the hotel’s lame pay-per-view movies. To the servers, I appeared to be in the U.S. and able to stream content.
Considering subscribing to a VPN service? The good news is that there are hundreds of them available. That’s also the bad news because they all do the basics. Look for those with client software for your computer, phone and tablet, VPN servers in a wide variety of places and a price you can afford.
Best for Frequent Flyers (VPN Anywhere): The name Hide My Ass (HMA) speaks for itself and can protect your data, identity and ultimately your derriere in a variety of far-flung places. Owned by security software company Avast, the HMA Pro VPN service has an extraordinary geographic scope with 900 servers in 190 countries, including Russia and Albania. The VPN service can obscure your location, protect data traffic and shuffle its IP addresses for greater anonymity. It lacks a firewall or ad blocker, though. There’s software for PCs (Vista, 7, 8, 10) and Macs (OSX 10.5), iOS and Android systems as well as some open-source routers. An HMA account supports up to five simultaneous users. Its blue and white interface is small and lets you choose among Instant Mode (one-click connect), Location Mode (pick your server) or Freedom Mode (the closest free-speech friendly country). Unlike PIA, you select a user name. At $12 a month, it’s more expensive than PIA but a full year costs $5 a month. Its UK headquarters means that HMA’s logs should be beyond the reach of American spy agencies.
• Excellent geographic distribution of servers
• Not US-based
• IP shuffle
• No Firewall or ad blocking
Most Secure (Double Encrypted Data): By using a map of the world to show VPN servers, NordVPN is among the easiest security apps to use: just pick a spot and click to connect. With more than 5,200 connection points, NordVPN has servers in 62 countries, in places like Egypt, Russia and Turkey. You can use NordVPN with Windows 7, 8 and 10, Mac OSX (10.10 or newer), Android, iOS, Chrome and Linux systems as well as some routers and smart TVs. While PIA and HMA go small, NordVPN’s app can run full screen with its connection map on the right and a server list on the left. You can pick a specific server or the area’s fastest. In addition to NordVPN’s Double VPN option that encrypts data twice, Cybersec can block annoying ads as well as prevent going to malicious and phishing sites. Unlike PIA, NordVPN lets you choose your user name. With headquarters in Panama, NordVPN is beyond the reach of American spy agencies and the company doesn’t keep a log to worry about. At $12 per month or $7 a month over a year, NordVPN is expensive compared to PIA, but allows 6, not 5, simultaneous users. With NordVPN, connecting is as simple as clicking on a map.
• Map-based interface
• Double VPN protection
• 6 user limit
• No logs
Private Internet Access
Most Economical or Cheapest VPN: Private Internet Access’s global network of VPN servers lets you to hide in plain sight for less. With more than 3,200 servers in 33 countries, Private Internet Access (PIA) connects in places like Germany, Turkey and Singapore but lacks VPN servers in hot spots like Russia. It pales in comparison to the 190 countries that Hide My Ass operates in. The service encrypts your traffic, can obscure your location, block ads and malware as well as including a capable firewall. There’s software for Windows (7, 8 and 10), Mac OSX (10.13), Linux, iOS and Android. It also works with Chrome, Firefox, Opera browsers and some open-source routers. The small Windows interface lets you pick a dark or light color scheme, set the encryption level and use small data packets for greater reliability. There’s a mini world map but you must use PIA’s assigned log-in name. While PIA doesn’t keep connection logs, its Denver headquarters means that American spy agencies can potentially snoop on your Web journeys. At $7 per month or $3.33 a month for a year, PIA is a bargain that allows 5 simultaneous users. In other words, PIA provides a lot of VPN security for the money.
• Firewall and ad blocker
• Customization potential
• Can’t change user name