With website passwords getting stolen by the millions these days, and internet service providers empowered to sell your browsing history to advertisers, you may be wondering if your internet security is as tight as it could be. As it turns out, creating a private pipeline to and through the internet doesn't require hacker wizardry.
You just need a virtual private network, or VPN (though Tor can work well in some cases, and we'll get into that too). Either way, VPNs are no longer just tools for white collar employees to remotely access internal company software. In recent years, they've also branched out to personal use.
For our walkthrough, we'll be using NordVPN (download for iOS or Android) as an example, though IVPN (download for iOS or Android), ProtonVPN (download for iOS or Android) and Private Internet Access (download for iOS or Android) are all well-regarded choices too.
(Note that if anonymity is truly critical, then a VPN by itself probably won't be enough. For that, you should probably be looking at setting up TAILS on your device of choice. The guide that follows below is more about practical privacy than absolute anonymity.)
How to set up a VPN such as NordVPN
As with most personal VPN services, the first step is to sign up on the VPN's website. Here, you choose your plan, give them an email address to associate with the account and then choose how you will pay. In the case of NordVPN, you can pay with cryptocurrency as well as fiat-based credit cards like Visa or Mastercard. Bitcoin is the most popular method, but some VPNs may let you pay with Etherium or Monero.
No matter how you choose to pay, NordVPN provides a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you get plenty of time to decide if the service is working the way that you'd like it to. Alternatively, you can just download the app for your platform and get a built-in 7-day free trial.
(Want a free VPN? In a few words: We don't recommend it.)
Once you've acquired the app and installed it on your device, just open it up and click or tap the green button labeled "Sign up as a new user" to complete the account creation process. From there, you'll be able to log into whatever VPN server NordVPN provides.
Choosing the right VPN server
If you live in the US, then NordVPN will offer you a VPN connection located in the US by default. But you can connect to any that are on the global map that the app provides. South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil, Iceland, India, Thailand -- every continent is represented, though the majority of NordVPN's options are clustered in Europe and southeast Asia.
With this standard VPN connection enabled, your internet service provider (ISP) will no longer be able to see what websites or individual web pages you're visiting. They'll only be able to see that you're connecting to a VPN server. Furthermore, your destination website will not see your personal IP address. Instead, it only sees the address of the VPN server that you've connected to.
For practical privacy, this should be good enough, but NordVPN has other interesting options that are worth a look. With a "double VPN," for example, your VPN server of choice connects to a second VPN server before sending you to your destination, which makes it that much tougher for a snooper to trace the connection back to your device and location.
Meanwhile, the "P2P" option is optimized for file sharing, which some VPNs prohibit to avoid legal entanglements with movie studios and music labels. And "Onion over VPN" creates a Tor network tunnel within your VPN connection, in the event that a Tor node has been compromised.
Note that if you need to connect to an employer's VPN server, you'll probably have to disconnect from your personal VPN to avoid errors.
Using the Tor network instead of a VPN
Tor works similarly to a VPN, with the main differences being cost, connection speed and your level of anonymity. The Tor network is free to use, though you can donate to the project if you wish. Without any financial transactions involved in the service itself, there's no paper trail or money to follow, so it's more difficult for nosy people to spy on your online activity.
Tor may provide more anonymity, because your connection gets bounced through multiple junction points by default, whereas your VPN of choice may not offer this "multi-hop" option, or the option may be restricted to a more expensive subscription tier.
On the other hand, while Tor may cost nothing and give you more anonymity, the network is definitely not built for speed. It's built for redundancy and obfuscation. Therefore, you shouldn't expect to be able to stream HD video or audio. It's more optimized for text and some images.
Also, the generally approved way to access the Tor network is through one of its official web browsers, which is derived from Mozilla Firefox (download for iOS or Android). So if you prefer Google Chrome (download for iOS or Android) or another browser, there may be a learning curve to the Tor experience.
- Why free VPN apps could be so dangerous
- We test IVPN's WireGuard, a speedy and lean next-gen VPN tech
- ProtonVPN virtual private network app now available for iPhones and iPads
- The Best VPN Services of 2019 (CNET)
- 7 security tips to stop apps from stealing your data (CNET)
- Inside a VPN service: How NordVPN conducts the business of Internet privacy (ZDNet)
- How to create a home office VPN server with Microsoft Azure (TechRepublic)