When you are connected to the internet, all of your traffic goes through your internet service provider. When you are at home, this is probably your broadband provider; on your mobile it's your carrier; if you're somewhere with communal WiFi then it might be anybody.
If you're using sites encrypted with SSL certificates (like this one), then your provider won't be able to see the data that's being transmitted, but they will still know which web sites you're visiting. Now I don't know about you, but I don't necessarily want my ISP (or anybody else) knowing exactly which websites I'm visiting.
There are a number of ways you can try to get round this problem and the one I'm going to focus on in this article is the use of a personal virtual private network (VPN). I'll end by recommending the provider I've been using for the past couple of years.
Before we go any further, it's probably best if you accept that there is no way to hide completely when you are using the internet. Regardless of what steps you take, any sufficiently motivated (and funded) agency will probably be able to find out exactly what you've been doing.
Very simple explanation of VPN
A VPN extends a private network across a public network, such as the internet.1 You may well have used a VPN before to connect to your corporate network when you are away from the office; it's great as it provides an encrypted connection with all of your file shares and intranet, etc being available, just the same as when your machine is plugged into the network at your workplace. A personal VPN is exactly the same thing, but without the fileshares and the intranet.
At first glance that might make it seem a bit pointless, but consider the following:
- When you are at work, you probably share the same external IP address with lots of other machines, so it's difficult for an external company to know exactly who has connected to them;
- If connecting to a VPN is the same as connecting to a physical network, then presumably you could make it seem like you're in another country if you connected to a VPN in that country.
- If you have good encryption to your VPN then nobody knows anything about what you're doing on the internet; all they can see is that you have connected to a machine somewhere, but they can't see your traffic.
Bearing in mind the above points we can deduce the following good reasons to use a personal VPN
- Your ISP probably uses deep packet inspection to throttle some of your traffic. Not if you're using a personal VPN they don't.
- Your IP address identifies you on the internet. If you're using a personal VPN, your IP address is hidden.
- A personal VPN means you can circumvent government and corporate restrictions and access any content you like on the internet.
- Your ISP can see which websites you visit, which videos you watch, who you email, which files you are uploading and downloading. With a VPN all they can see is a stream of encrypted traffic and the IP address and location of the VPN server to which you have connected. Of course, if you're unlucky somebody might ask your VPN provider who you are and what you were doing and they might tell them, but probably not if you aren't breaking the law and certainly not if you VPN provider hasn't actually logged that information.
Okay cool, so does that mean everyone in the UK can now watch Hulu and everyone in the USA can now watch BBC iPlayer2? Actually, yes it does. Check out these screenshots of me trying to watch Family Guy on Hulu from the UK before and after I connected to a personal VPN in New York. All I did was connect my VPN and hit F5 to refresh the browser.
What makes a good personal VPN
Two things: speed and discretion.
And unlimited traffic. Okay three things, but let's not turn this into a Monty Python sketch.
You don't need me to tell you that if you want to stream video over a VPN then it needs to be pretty fast. Over the past couple of years I have tried a few different personal VPN providers, but the one I have been using consistently and paying for out of my own pocket is VyprVPN[*] from Golden Frog.
NOTE: The [*] means it's an affiliate link, but I pay for and use VyprVPN myself (it's the only personal VPN service I use) and can personally recommend it. Besides, you get a big discount if you use that link.
VyprVPN has desktop apps for Windows and Mac, but can also be used on mobile devices too. It's quite a simple application to use and can easily be configured to kill all internet traffic if it becomes disconnected, thus ensuring your privacy.
VyprVPN claims to be the world's fastest VPN and I think that might well be true. They are certainly fast enough for me at the moment (and I have tried others that weren't). Here is a speed test I conducted just now when I was connected from the UK to a server in New York via VyprVPN.
If you want to protect your privacy on the internet, a personal VPN is a good choice as it encrypts all of your network traffic. Regardless of which provider you choose, the three main considerations are speed, discretion and unlimited traffic.
Check that what you want to do is legal. e.g. BBC iPlayer has a Watch Live option that allows you to watch whatever is currently being broadcast in real time. In the UK you can watch catch-up television without a licence, but if you are watching a programme that is currently being broadcast, then you need to have a television licence - https://iplayerhelp.external.bbc.co.uk/tv/tvlicence. ↩