Thoughts on VPN usage

Yesterday I finally signed up for a VPN service. It’s been on my mind for quite some time, frankly, but I’ve gotten around to it now as I’m going to be forced to switch to Comcast at the new house, and I don’t trust those fuckers. Mind you, I shouldn’t have been trusting AT&T either, but what’s done is done.

What a VPN provides (hopefully) is security, privacy, and anonymity. The security comes in the form of an encrypted tunnel between you and the end point. People on your local network or playing man-in-the-middle, in certain ways, will have a much harder time collecting your information. 

The privacy comes from the same thing. Your traffic is encrypted, so nobody can see where your traffic goes to, or comes from, aside from the end point. Right now my ISP is only able to see that I’m sending traffic to a point in Germany. It has no way of knowing that I’m actually typing this up on the Tumblr dashboard. It, or government agents monitoring data (not saying that I, specifically, am being monitored, or even that everyone is, but who knows… the supreme court has struck down a need for warrants again, soo…), can’t tell what I’m viewing. In theory. 

The anonymity comes from the same source. Tumblr, in turn, doesn’t know that this is coming from some guy with AT&T in the Atlanta area. It looks like it’s being visited from somewhere in Germany. And I’m able to change my endpoint as well. An hour ago I was in London. Yesterday I had a stopover in Moscow. My traffic is harder to pinpoint and monitor as a result. 

The obvious benefit to all of this would be if I were participating in illegal activity, which is WRONG and no of course I’m not, what are you suggesting. But of course, in many nations like China or in the Middle East, internet traffic is heavily regulated. In instances like that, using a VPN allows the bypassing of government filters, monitors, and firewalls to be able to gain access to the full internet. And unfortunately a certain amount of that is happening in the United States as well, though moreso in a hamfisted and shockingly draconian attempt to prevent copyright infringement (which a VPN works around). To whit, AT&T is preparing to roll out a “six strikes” scheme for users caught infringing copyright. You may say that sounds reasonable, but to appeal each infringement and proclaim your innocence, you’ll be charged $35. You are absolutely assumed guilty until you pay up to be innocent. And that scheme is going to roll out to other providers as well. How exactly they’ll discover this is unclear… companies are allowed to file DMCA takedown requests freely, so they can accuse you of anything. Just like in the case where a local news agency filed a DMCA against NASA and had the Curiosity landing taken offline. Or like when the live stream of the Hugo awards was taken down because they showed part of a movie for which they had license to show. Or even part of the Democratic National Convention, taken offline for the same reason. 

But even if that sort of thing isn’t a concern for you, there’s another useful benefit! Certain sites target their content for specific countries, and they base this on IP ranges. Users in Europe, for instance, can’t watch Hulu, and this opens that possibility for them. I, meanwhile, have been rather enjoying the BBC’s streaming shows (hence being in London yesterday). Bargain Hunt is some daytime TV garbage but by god I love it.

Now with all of that shit said, here’s been my experience.

  1. Picked out a VPN service. This was actually the biggest pain in the ass: there are loads of them nowadays and you need to find one that fits you. My criteria were no logging, lots of endpoint options, unlimited bandwidth at a reasonable price. I think I did well.
  2. Download the VPN software. Some organizations will use open source options like OpenVPN, which can even be connected directly at your router. Mine has its own software built on OpenVPN. Surprisingly easy to use. 
  3. Start the software of choice. In my case this means “double click the icon, then click connect”. And that’s that. A few more steps if I want to change my endpoint. 
  4. Start surfing dem webz. At this point, if you configured it all correctly, all your outgoing traffic should be through your endpoint’s IP. You can check this with one of the many “what’s my IP” websites. Note that any apps that maintain a constant connection (chat stuff, torrents, etc) will need to be restarted to go through the new connection.

Bam. That’s it. I’d have been up and running inside of 5 minutes after choosing a provider, aside from that my credit card company flagged them as suspicious and had to have a robot call me to accuse me of stealing my own card, and then not offer an apology for making me look like a dick with a declined card once I approved the charges. 

Anyway, this sort of thing is kind of the next step for people who want to take privacy reeeeally seriously. I have to admit I feel slightly paranoid just acknowledging that I want to use such a thing, but at the same time, I’m glad I’ve moved forward with protecting my own shit from prying corporate eyes. Am I perfectly secure? Fuck no, I’ve got a Gmail habit to kick. But it’s a huge step forward.