Big Brother is watching – do I need a VPN?

Unless you’ve been living in a news blackout for the last few months, you will have heard all the NSA horror stories. If you’ve used a computer or mobile phone at any point in your life then the NSA and GCHQ probably know every intimate detail of your life.

Probably, possibly, perhaps. To be honest, they probably find my intimate details interminably boring. But let’s just say for a moment that I do have secrets to hide and I wanted to do something about it.

If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide.

paranoidSo goes the argument of many, especially when it comes to monitoring your online activity at work, or sticking up a CCTV camera at the end of your road. And certainly, if you’re a terrorist, crime lord or pedrophile then your online protection will be far beyond the scope of this post – otherwise you would already have been caught.

But, sadly, during the course of my day I have to access websites and email accounts that are not as secure as they could be. If you’ve ever had a cheap web hosting account with a nasty little POP3 mailbox, chances are your passwords are flying around unencrypted. When I’m at home, those details are only exposed along the route through BT and one or two other providers before they get to the server. Not ideal, but I like to think that BT will only be giving away my secrets to friendly governments.

However, if I’m out and about and decide to jump onto a wifi hotspot, then my secrets can easily be sniffed out by anyone in the vicinity. And when you’re sat having a coffee in Costabucks, the identity thief slurping your passwords is not going to be wearing a stripy jumper and carrying a bag marked swag.

This is where a VPN service can come in useful.

What’s a VPN?

Not to be confused with VPL, a VPN is a Virtual Private Network. By running some software on your PC, your internet traffic is encrypted and sent down a “tunnel” to safe server before it is unencrypted and allowed out on to the internet. So it doesn’t stop your email being read by the government but it does stop it being read by the dodgy looking bloke sat at the table opposite.

More useful to some is where that server at the other end of the tunnel is.

Crossing boundaries, hiding tracks

If the other end of your tunnel is in a foreign country, it can help bypass local censors and help make your activity anonymous. This kind of VPN use is vital for those living in oppressive regimes, where access to online services like twitter and reliable sources of news are blocked and activists silenced.

If your oppressive regime is limited to preventing you watching your favourite TV programmes from across the pond (or accessing iPlayer if you’re over there) or making sure you cannot access unauthorised copies of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster well, it’s harder to defend a moral high ground, but a VPN will help you get passed those “Error – site blocked” messages too.

It can also be useful for certain aspects of web development, where appearing to be in another location is important in testing. It should also help if your ISP is being cheeky and using “traffic shaping” – slowing down certain kinds of internet activity so that their service appears faster – they cannot tell what kind of traffic you’re creating.

Trying it out

settingsSo, knowing I’m not a Tibetan Blogger, let’s assume I’m worried about our mochaccino quaffing identity thief, I’m going to try out this service from Private Internet Access. There are free alternatives around but I want something reliable and with plenty of bandwidth, plus I don’t want to deprive those who need their security far more than I by hogging their resources. They appear to be well known and have had good reviews.

So having signed up for a subscription for about £25 per year, I have downloaded their PC client. Yes, they have my payment details but they claim to keep no logs of who accesses what and when, for those looking for anonymity. And I’m not planning any terrorist activity.

They provide instructions on how to set up OpenVPN or other existing VPN clients you may have, so you’re not restricted to a Windows PC. The software setup is pretty simple and entering your settings easy – you can specify which country you want your tunnel to surface in. If you go to the advanced settings, you can even set a “VPN Kill Switch” – this kills your internet connection when the VPN is off, so you cannot use it by accident.

Does it work?

Well, my testing suggests it does. My Google searches now suggest I change my default to instead of and I’ve just been recommended a rather good restaurant in Oslo. shows that my speed isn’t much lower than it was without the VPN running (bearing in mind that I am one of the Whitstable 18) and it thinks my nearest server is in Trondheim.

So, Private Internet Access gets the Dear Geek seal of approval, and therefore I’m confident in placing an affiliate link below!




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Jonathan Gwyer

Jonathan Gwyer first delved into geekery with a ZX81 in 1981 and has been working in IT since 1990.

A Microsoft Certified Professional with many years of large corporate experience and training, he now focuses on helping small businesses make the most of their IT.
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Big Brother is watching – do I need a VPN?

by Jonathan Gwyer time to read: 4 min