Mobile VPNs: Taking Back Online Privacy

Posted: November 9, 2013 in Articles
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 VPN Logo  In recent months the concern over virtual privacy, or lack thereof, has been a hot topic worldwide. The reality is that there is a wide variety of virtual privacy threats designed to steal personal information. What this stolen personal information is used for varies just as widely; from government spying to identity theft our information is being collected and used without our consent.

   According to research firm PewInternet.org, 63% of cell phone owners use their mobile device to access the internet. Due to restrictions on mobile network speed or data overages people are using public Wi-Fi with growing regularity and this is further diminishing our ability to protect our personal data. Whether a laptop, tablet or a smartphone, public Wi-Fi is a hotbed for data theft activity. Even individuals who are not technically inclined can steal personal information, such as login credentials and credit card numbers, using easy-to-use hacking programs. These hacking programs monitor network traffic looking for valuable information to collect and save. Essentially, these programs do all the hard work and allow the cybercriminals to sit back and enjoy coffee and a muffin while the program steals identities.

Additionally, data companies have been collecting information about internet user’s for years. The amount of information collected about any individual can be surprising. Not only do data companies collect demographic information (age, race, sex) but also information regarding relatives, marital status, living situation, income, credit rating, recent online and offline purchases, social media accounts,  web browsing history, and even personal hobbies. These data companies know more than many people’s close friends, and certainly more than most people would be comfortable sharing.

It is time that we, as a virtual collective, take steps to secure our information and take back the privacy that was so brazenly taken from us. One powerful tool that can be used to secure our personal data is a VPN (Virtual Private Network). To borrow an analogy from WhatIsMyIP.com “a firewall protects your data while on the computer and a VPN protects your data on the web.” A VPN is a way of connecting to the internet that is secure, the data transmitted is encrypted, and allows the user to remain anonymous while surfing the web. VPNs protect our online activity from being tracked by big data companies (or the government), and prevent hackers from monitoring and intercepting sensitive information.

There are numerous VPN services available, some of which are free and others paid. Generally the free services limit the speed of the internet connection and the overall amount of data that can be transferred. There are paid VPN services that can start as low as $5 a month or even cheaper at a yearly rate of $40. Free VPN services should be capable of providing anonymity for the casual internet user without disrupting service speed and quality. However, for heavy internet junkies and mega-downloaders a paid VPN service may be required to provide adequate service while restoring internet privacy.

When considering a VPN service there are several features to look for prior to making the big decision. Each individual needs will be different, some will place anonymity above price and a corporate client may require different features from a VPN than a personal user. Here are some things to consider.

Data Logging Policies – Research the VPN service’s policy on logging user activity data. Many VPN services will not log any user activity data and may goes as far as purging all information including login time and duration. However, some VPN providers will keep logs of user activity while using the VPN in case the government requests this type of information (in this writer’s small mind this defeats the purpose of using a VPN).

Mobile Apps – One of the more important features to consider is whether or not the VPN service also offers a mobile application. Using a VPN from a mobile device (smartphone, tablet) when connected to public Wi-Fi is incredibly important to prevent data theft. Also be sure that the VPN mobile application is compatible with your device operating system (i.e. iOS, Android, Windows Phone, etc).

Connection Speed – The last thing you want is to purchase a VPN service and find that your lightning fast internet connection is now akin to wading through wet cement. When selecting a VPN make sure that it supports connection speeds 10Mbps or greater.

Exit Server Locations – Data sent over a VPN will exit a server that is unlikely to be local (this helps provide privacy). Using this feature to its advantage can allow individuals to watch live TV shows from different countries, or access content on websites that may be restricted in other countries. Check the VPN service providers list of exit servers to ensure it has servers in the countries that meet your needs.

Price – Obviously, choose a VPN service that fits your budget.

(A few examples of VPN services that are well regarded across the industry: VyprVPN by Goldenfrog, Private Internet Access, HideMyAss)

VPN Diagram
Everyone is encouraged to do further research to find the VPN service that suits your individual needs best, but a few examples have been provided above. Anyone who is serious about their online privacy should be using a VPN while surfing the web from their desktop, laptop, and mobile devices.

James Green is a security researcher for Android antivirus company Armor for Android. James has worked in the Android security field for several years and provides privacy and security advice to Android users.

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