What Is a VPN?
If the 20th century was defined by an explosive growth in technology, then the 21st century is beginning to be defined by personal security, or more pointedly, a lack thereof. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), once mainly a site-to-site connection tool for IT professionals, have evolved to become personal services that let individual users connect to the internet by using encrypted traffic that prevents third parties from snooping on their web activities.
This VPN evolution occurred because it has become increasingly easy for hackers to exploit constantly changing operating systems (OSes), applications, and networks. This means sophisticated tactics, such as man-in-the-middle attacks, aren’t just being aimed at businesses anymore. It’s happening to everyday folks who are frequenting their favorite coffee shop. This means these folks need to upgrade their security arsenal.
A VPN encrypts and tunnels all of your web traffic through a secure proxy out in the cloud. Imagine all of your web traffic flowing to and from your computer as a stream. Now simply wrap that stream inside a layer of encrypted traffic; that’s a basic VPN. All of your surfing will appear to come from the VPN server, and nobody, in theory, can see what you are doing by simply observing the network traffic since there are thousands of other users all sending data through that same Internet Protocol (IP) address.
Why Do I Need a VPN?
If you use your computer or device on a network connection that you don’t personally own, then you definitely need a VPN. Public Wi-Fi is a favorite attack vector for cybercriminals who are trying to lift your passwords. By reducing the chance of a man-in-the-middle attack, VPNs keep you and your most valuable personal information safer.
Another reason is to maintain privacy from increasingly invasive Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and government agencies. This is especially true if you use a peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing service such as BitTorrent, which, while it’s most commonly used for perfectly legal file-sharing activities, continues to be associated with a certain amount of illegal activity. Even if you don’t fall into the nefarious user category, it’s not uncommon to have your connection throttled simply based on the kind of surfing you’re doing. If you don’t want your ISP or anyone else differentiating between Netflix and standard browsing traffic, then you need to consider a VPN.
What to Consider When Buying a VPN
While most personal VPNs need to focus on ease of use, Linux users tend to be willing to tinker a bit when it comes to software. This fact hasn’t been lost on most VPN providers that, based on our experiences during this review, have put decidedly less effort into setup and configuration ease under Linux than under Apple OS X, Microsoft Windows, and the more popular mobile operating systems (OSes). While they make the directions generally clear in most circumstances, you should expect to get your hands dirty to get a VPN (for Linux) working.
OpenVPN is the major protocol path when trying to connect under Linux, though other protocols will work, too. For Ubuntu users, it’s a simple apt-get command away from working right from the Unity user interface (UI). It’s a good idea to brush up on your terminal skills if you are feeling a bit rusty, though, because some command line typing is going to occur. Some VPN services offer a graphical user interface (GUI) but they’re relatively rare. For example, only two out of our three Editors’ Choice winners in this VPN (for Linux) review roundup offer a GUI. For those that do, it’s important to evaluate whether or not it offers additional benefits, such as custom protocols, the ability to detect the fastest available server, and the ability to perform additional configuration tasks, such as disabling Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) (which is important when you’re trying to maintain a secure tunnel).
Also consider the types of services you’ll want to access. Streaming video from services such as Netflix will require not only speed but potentially a static IP address, which could drive up your monthly cost. Connecting from different countries might have a healthy or adverse effect on your overall surfing speed, which could impact the kinds of web apps you’ll be able to run. BitTorrent or other P2P file-sharing users will also want to investigate carefully, not only for compatibility with a particular VPN but also to see what kinds of data retention policy the service has so that, if data is handed over to a legal authority, your identity and activity will remain private. All of these factors will be critical in selecting which service to use.
Can I Trust a VPN?
One of the primary challenges with using a VPN service is determining to what extent you can trust that service. Even though all traffic from your computer to the VPN is encrypted, that doesn’t mean the VPN service itself couldn’t sniff and analyze your web traffic. Without some careful research, you could be trading one devil (your ISP) for another (the VPN service). The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) does a good job of outlining what it believes are some of the most trustworthy VPNs. For those traveling abroad, this kind of research could mean the difference between going to prison or going home. Beyond this, any VPN that’s worth considering publishes a lengthy description of what they do and don’t do when it comes retaining and disclosing your data. The best of the best retain no logs and exist in a legal jurisdiction that makes no demands for providing or logging any browsing or network connection data.
Why consider services outside those jurisdictions then? The biggest downside is speed. At its core, a VPN is encrypting traffic, which takes time, especially when it’s happening on a constant stream like when you’re surfing the web. Plus, you’re sending all of your traffic requests not straight to the website to which you’re surfing but first to another computer, namely, the service’s VPN server, and from there to the website—all of which takes yet more time. Combined haphazardly, these two factors can have a significantly negative impact on your browsing enjoyment, even if they do keep you safer.
In addition, depending on where your VPN is hosted, you may find that some services are less trusting or serve up different content than what you expect. Thankfully, most VPNs offer a wide variety of endpoints across a diverse geographic landscape. At the end of the day, you’ll need to consider a VPN based on your needs and those can often vary significantly.
VPNs deserve a lot of credit for making the web safer. However, they also represent a range of often difficult-to-decipher policies and features. The fact that you’re accessing these under Linux doesn’t make things any easier since Linux isn’t always for the technically faint of heart (and their users are typically not considered first-class citizens when it comes to commercial software updates). Windows users typically enjoy some kind of GUI and additional tools to help confirm that the VPN is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. In Penguin land, though, you are largely on your own, but there are a few gems worth looking at. With our help, you’ll know just where to look.
Cons: No graphical user interface for Linux users.
Pros: Graphical user interface application. Fast. IPv6 leak protection.
Cons: Weaker protocols when connecting from China.
Bottom Line: Private Internet Access VPN (for Linux) nails a fine balance between security, privacy, speed, and ease of use. So, those who need a Linux VPN without sacrificing power, look no further. But if you’re looking to stream video, then you’ll likely need to look elsewhere.
Pros: Dedicated graphical user interface for Linux. Good support for BitTorrent. Excellent security features.
Cons: Streaming services requires an additional charge.
Bottom Line: Using TorGuard VPN (for Linux) is an effortless experience that includes a lot of bells and whistles for security-minded users. However, if you want to stream video, then you may need a dedicated IP address.
Pros: Excellent speed. Good documentation for Linux users. Command line interface utility for Linux.
Cons: Limited support for Netflix. Restricted access to BitTorrent. Not a complete zero logging policy. No IPv6 leak detection.
Bottom Line: If you need a fast VPN for surfing the web anonymously, then Hide My Ass VPN (for Linux) is a good choice, as long as you can overlook its logging policy. If you need it for BitTorrent or streaming services, then it’s not the best option.
Pros: Fast. Zero-knowledge domain name server.
Cons: No Linux support for Chameleon VPN protocol. Lackluster setup instructions. No graphical client.
Bottom Line: Golden Frog VyprVPN (for Linux) is fast and has a number of great security features. But for Linux users, the VPN lacks a graphical user interface, and the setup instructions aren’t easy to find or use.
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