(Credit: Screenshots: Tom McNamara/Download.com)

When you open a mobile app and get online, a number of technical transmission layers lock into place behind the scenes to verify that you're getting data from where you're supposed to. Every time you load a website in a web browser, this app consults something called a Domain Name System (DNS) server, which points you to the correct destination when you type in facebook.com or wikipedia.org.

SEE: A buyer's guide to virtual private networks (VPNs) in 2018

In a country with a censorship-happy government, it may take control of its regional DNS servers and shut them down so that you can't access websites outside of its borders. Or it can manipulate the data on the server to redirect you elsewhere.

Today, however, a Google company called Jigsaw has unveiled an easy-to-use Android app called Intra that may allow you to bypass government censorship and get the word out about something of international importance that's happening in your area.

When this app is enabled on your phone or tablet, it establishes a virtual private network (VPN) connection directly to Google's own DNS servers around the world, instead of using the servers established by your internet service provider.

This VPN connection is an encrypted tunnel, so anyone monitoring your connection from the outside can't see what websites you're going to. All they can see is that you're connecting to one of Google's free DNS servers.

If you prefer another DNS server, the app also has a preset to connect to CloudFlare instead, or you can manually enter the details of an additional choice. And as far as privacy goes, according to Intra's website, "Intra keeps your information private. We don't track the apps you use or websites you visit."

This isn't as full-throated of a commitment to privacy as we've seen from paid personal VPN services such as IVPN or NordVPN, but it's also a step beyond most free options.

In fact, many such services advertise themselves as providing a VPN, when what they're actually giving you is just a proxy. The difference is that a proxy connection is not necessarily encrypted, and its provider doesn't necessarily avoid keeping logs of the users connecting to its servers. If you want to check out paid VPNs, we have a guide to help you decide.

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Don't forget about the Tor network

If you can't take advantage of Intra or a paid VPN service, there's also the Tor network, whose maintainers provide a version of Firefox for Android called Orfox, which can plug into this network when you use it in combination with Orbot. (The Windows version of this browser is self-contained, so it doesn't require an additional app to work properly.)

Tor is similar to a paid VPN service, except that its network of servers is provided on a volunteer basis. This helps keep the network free to use, but it also means that the network is not optimized for speed. Instead, it's optimized for anonymity.

Some oppressive regimes may recognize the IP addresses of servers that connect you to the Tor network, however, in which case you'll need to use "bridge mode." This lets you access an additional network of servers that themselves connect to the servers that route you through Tor to your destination. This kind of layering is why Tor originally stood for "The Onion Router."

Because of the presence of bridge mode, Tor may be more effective than Intra. But at the least, you can download all of these apps now and set them up to be used when needed.

The takeaways

  • A Google-owned company named Jigsaw has released a free Android app called Intra that can bypass your default Domain Name System (DNS) servers in favor of an encrypted connection to Google's own DNS server network.
  • This could come in handy if you live in a country with an oppressive government, since it often has the power to shut down DNS servers located within its borders, which would prevent its citizens from communicating with the outside world.
  • Alternatively, you can try the Tor network, which is also free to access, or a paid VPN service like NordVPN or IVPN.

Also see

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.