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Protect your Internet privacy with a VPN

In the wake of recent news about AT&T's plans to sell your browsing history, and more, to advertisers (not to mention ongoing concerns about the NSA's activities), many have asked what they can do to protect their internet privacy. While Verizon and T-Mobile have had similar programs in place for some time, AT&T has the spotlight because they've decided to follow suit. Although they've pledged to anonymize the data before selling it, as Ars Technica points out, that doesn't always work. So what can you do to protect your privacy? The first step is to invest in a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

A VPN can be a couple of things. More often than not, you'll see them used when employees want to connect to their work servers/computers remotely. VPNs allow for certain types of encryption that your public connection does not. This extra security enables public connections to link up with private intranets (a company's internal server, for example).

On the other hand, a VPN can be used for professional-grade Internet privacy at the consumer level -- you know, the everyday stuff you do, like browsing your favorite websites. The key is this: when you use a VPN, the information you send and receive is encrypted even though it's technically being sent through a public connection. The VPN changes your IP address to link up with an IP address on the VPN server, effectively forming a tunnel, and then uses security protocols like SSL (Secure Socket Layer) to ensure that only that IP address is capable of decrypting the information sent between you and the server.

How it works in practice: if you sign up for a VPN service like Private Internet Access, you connect to one of their many VPN servers across the world. Once connected, your public IP address is replaced by an IP address assigned to you by that server, and the tunnel is formed.
Photo: Private Internet Access

In this example, once connected, you will have a Swiss IP address, and any data sent to or from your computer will be routed through this server instead of the one assigned by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). What makes this secure, as mentioned earlier, is that anyone who intercepts data sent between you and the server will be unable to 1) easily decrypt the information to see its contents, and 2) know to whom or from where the data was being sent. While the former is definitely a plus, the latter, the ability to browse the Internet anonymously, is the key feature of a VPN that protects your Internet privacy.

Now, choosing a VPN provider can be a bit overwhelming. When I first realized a VPN was something in which I wanted to invest, I went through several providers before landing on one I really liked. There isn't much to take into consideration, but there are a few things worth investigating.

1. Number of servers and their locations
One of the primary things to check for when signing up for a VPN is the number of servers offered by the service, and their locations. Having a large number and a wide variety of locations usually signals a VPN service that takes this seriously. Having the choice to connect to a server near to you (for faster speeds), or very far away (for even more privacy) is a boon for any VPN.

2. Speed
This was the primary attribute I was searching for when I first looked for a VPN provider. Because a VPN routes your Internet through another server (which could be very far away from your ISP), VPNs often result in an artificial slowdown of your normal internet speeds. The first few VPNs I tried, BTGuard and HideMyAss!, both took my normal 45Mbps down/5Mbps up internet connection and brought it to a screeching halt at 5Mbps/1Mbps. It wasn't until I found VyprVPN, the only VPN I've used that doesn't negatively affect my speeds at all, that I settled on a provider.

3. Privacy
Research your VPN provider's commitment to your anonymity before committing. Some providers keep logs of Internet traffic, and others don't. Some, like Private Internet Access, use shared IP addresse, which are even more secure because it means even the provider can't track the data's origin and end points.

4. Cost
Most VPN providers charge a fee to use their servers, so do some research and compare prices across similar providers before making your final decision.

5. Other Issues
It's also worth noting that VPNs are somewhat frowned upon by several organizations. MasterCard and Visa are the two most recent companies to take a stand against anonymizing clients. This isn't too long after PayPal started banning Usenet services, and other VPNs. In addition, because VPNs are also used by people abroad to illegally access American sites like Netflix and Hulu, you may run into some issues trying to watch streaming media over a VPN connection. Because websites are capable of determining if you're using a VPN connection, some will block you if they've received too many complaints about your IP. For example, when I first started using HideMyAss!, I couldn't access Twitter using HMA!'s New York servers because they had reported for spam too many times. Los Angeles worked fine though.

As I mentioned earlier, I use VyprVPN for its speed, its ease of use (it has applications for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android), and the fact that it's never given me any other issues. But, don't stop there. LifeHacker has taken the time to test out a few VPN services, and those are definitely worth a look too.

With a VPN in tow, you can browse the Internet safely, securely, and without the looming presence of Big Brother looking over your shoulder.

Photo: FutUndBeidl