VPNs have been around since 1996. First crafted to protect the data transmissions of remote workers, they have been used widely in the developing world as censorship efforts like China’s Great Firewall have taken off.
However, these applications have only really entered into the consciousness of mainstream internet users in the developed world over the past decade. Why are VPNs suddenly popular? In this article, we’ll talk about what they are, trends driving increasing rates of VPN adoption, and the biggest players in this corner of the internet security industry.
What are Virtual Private Networks (VPN)?
But before we get into the details of why VPNs are suddenly mainstream, let’s expand a bit on what they are and why they are important. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In short, it creates a secure connection for users on networks with shared access.
This was a necessary step as our world entered the internet age. Pioneering corporations were allowing workers to telecommute from home; however, they were using unsecured home connections to do this. This was a big problem, as they would be using them to receive, work on, and send back files that would inevitably contain trade secrets.
Setting up an encrypted connection protected these firms from the actions of hackers – ever since the beginning of the net, these nefarious actors have constantly searched for the weakest link in the security chain to attack.
They were incredibly effective – even if the bad guys somehow managed to crack the connection, the data intercepted from these connections would be worthless without an encryption key.
That isn’t the only trick VPNs have up their sleeve, though – they can also spoof the location of the end user. By using web proxies to assign an IP address in a specific country, it can trick a destination firewall into allowing access to the servers they protect.
This proved to be useful for workers (and later, ordinary citizens) working abroad in developing countries. Many of these governments, shocked at the freedom of expression allowed by the internet, were actively assembling systems to censor its content en masse. VPNs allowed overseas employees of major firms to communicate freely with web resources blocked by their host country.
Why are VPNs suddenly popular?
VPNs have been around for more than 20 years – why haven’t we heard much about them until just recently? There are a number of trends responsible for this, but in a nutshell, June 5th, 2013 was the day when the average internet user suddenly became aware of how exposed they really were.
That was the day when the Guardian newspaper in the UK published irrefutable evidence that the NSA was engaging in comprehensive internet espionage against everyday Americans. Edward Snowden revealed the existence of programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, which both collected and analyzed the metadata of searches, phone calls, and other internet traffic for specific keywords.
The emergence of geoblocking has also driven sales of VPNs in recent years. Geoblocking is a practice where corporations and media outlets restrict access to its digital content outside specific geographic areas.
This has drawn the ire of customers wanting to access media content while on holiday or working in another country. To accomplish this, they have purchased VPNs which spoof their IP address. This makes it appear to services like Hulu they are sitting in their living room back in the USA (even if they are on the beach in Thailand).
Finally, the rise of internet firewalls by autocratic regimes in nations like China, Vietnam, and Turkey (to name but a few) have left many business and pleasure travelers without access to their favorite sites. By downloading a VPN before traveling to these regions, you can get around these restrictions so you can access Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and others without any issues.
Who are the biggest players in this niche?
VyprVPN: $9.95 per month (non-recurring), $6.67 per month (12-month premium plan), $5 per month (12-month basic plan).
VyprVPN is known for its speed, making it suitable for those who want to access streaming services while on holiday. Its massive collection of over 200,000 IP addresses gives users an amazing amount of flexibility, but its best feature is its proprietary technology, the Chameleon Protocol.
The Chameleon Protocol allows VyprVPN to overcome one of biggest challenges facing VPN providers – the pervasive and persistent blocking of VPN servers by surveillance states like China. The Chameleon Protocol is available through the Premium Plan, making the extra $1.67 it costs worth the expense if you plan on spending significant time abroad.
ExpressVPN: $12.95 per month (non-recurring), $9.99 per month (6-month plan), $6.67 per month (15-month plan).
ExpressVPN offers access to over 2,000 servers and works across a wide variety of platforms (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, and Blackberry). With excellent 24/7 customer service and a kill switch that conceals your real IP if the network drops, it is another excellent option for craving security, privacy, and performance.
NordVPN: $11.95 per month (non-recurring), $6.99 per month (12-month plan), $2.99 per month (36-month plan).
NordVPN boasts more than 4,000 servers and protects up to six devices, making it one of the best values in the business. If you are involved in activities that require regular VPN usage, $2.99 per month is a tough deal to beat.
VPNs aren’t an internet security cure-all (but getting one is a step forward)
VPNs can protect users from lazy, script-abusing cybercriminals, and the repressive whims of autocratic governments, but they are not a one-stop shop for internet security. Those paranoid about spooks should realize they are too smart to be defeated by widely available VPNs. They have alternate ways of getting their hands on what they want, so if you don’t want them snooping about your computer, you’ll need to work harder than downloading a VPN and calling it a day.
By using strong passwords with a variety of characters, changing them regularly, and using a password manager, you’ll guard against brute force attacks. Privacy apps like Signal will keep your voice calls and messaging conversations encrypted (provided your contact is using it too). Keeping your software updated will prevent savvy hackers from abusing loopholes in the buggy code.
In short, guarding your data against the best operatives employed by the security establishment is a full-time job.
However, if you just want to stay safe while working in airport terminals and in cafes, or want to watch Netflix after a fun day at the beach in Mexico, the VPNs mentioned in this article are all excellent investments. Download one and you will have taken a big step towards securing your activities online.