VPNs or Virtual Private Networks are services that create an encrypted and secured connection between your computer and a VPN server located in a different location, most often than not, it is outside your own country.
This extra layer of security and privacy is a worthwhile investment for individuals who would want to keep their data protected, especially when they connect to public Wi-Fi networks and other connection facilities that are less secure. However, VPNs are not magic pills for your Internet and cyber-security woes, especially if you're aiming to be anonymous online.
As you connect to a website, your connection — and the data that is carried over goes from your computer to your local Wi-Fi or router, then jumps around on your ISP's (Internet Service Providers) network and to the destination server (like youtube.com) and eventually returns with your requested data (as to youtube, your favorite cat videos). However, along the way, someone could and can theoretically know where the request came from and where it goes. In short, someone can monitor your online activity.
Have you ever had this feeling that somehow, your favorite social media app seems to have been listening or reading into your conversations? Or something, it has started showing you ads aimed at your most recent topic or searches you made with your friends or contacts within that social media platform? Also, ads for a local restaurant that offers your favorite meal keep popping up on your feed, to the point that you almost placed an order?
Well, that's how companies are trying to get your attention — and eventually your money so to speak. Your data is gold for them. Your profiles; browsing patterns, sites you visit, articles you read or spend time reading more than five minutes, even the memes you share are gold nuggets in which advertisers try to filter into their campaigns, potentially reaching more clients to engage with.
Given this situation, this is where VPNs come in handy. It encrypts all of your traffic between your workstation and the VPN server, preventing anyone on your local network from taking a peek or even modifying your activity.
The VPN server, in turn, mixes your traffic from other people on the same VPN and masks it to the point that they wouldn't be able to know it was destined for your PC or device.
However these extra steps and layers of encryption may slow down any Internet connections, the best VPN providers have connections fast enough to keep you on your usual online browsing speeds.
Given these things to consider we've tried our hands on downloading TunnelBear, a VPN service provider acquired by McAfee in March 2018, as to our research TunnelBear site states that they are operating independently from the known anti-virus company. Being part of a US-based firm means that TunnelBear, which is based in Canada, is subject to US consumer-privacy protections. This ticks off a box in our checklist of things to look for when searching for VPNs.
TunnelBear's website is easy to browse through, with well-made graphics and easy to find topics for those would want to research more about their products and services.
There are three plans to choose from which each has its perks and privileges.
We tried our paws on this free service and found the whole interface friendly even for basic users since everything is designed to be as accessible as it can be with easy to navigate buttons. The site's feel is generally light and doesn't bombard you with so much information. We were able to download the installer without any hiccups and the installation went well.
When downloaded the same easy on the eyes design is still present as you navigate through three simple buttons.
When you turn the service on the map turns all green and a bear inside a tunnel appears and asks which country you’d want to re-route your signal to go. For this, we selected Singapore, given it was the default fastest VPN server currently.
Selecting the country where you want your signal to be re-routed is also a breeze as the drop-down menu is also well made and thought-of.
The list interestingly is composed of all the G-7 countries, i.e. US, UK, Germany, Japan, and the rest. Also, it lists the Netherlands, one of the few countries in the world where Internet rights are highly prized and vigorously protected. Some outliers are Mexico, Hong Kong, India, and Brazil. Also notable is having Romania included in the list.
At the end of the list, you are also given the option of selecting the fastest server at the bottom. We’ve tried this several times and usually, since we are based in the Philippines, the nearest nodes were located in Hong Kong and Singapore.
When you click on the Settings button, the options are divided into four (4) major groups: General Settings, Security, Trusted Networks, and Account.
Conveniently, they had grouped these settings neatly, as per groupings are well placed to their importance for the user as it gives brief descriptions as to what a certain button would turn on or off.
As expected with VPNs your traffic is rerouted with other servers located within a different country, for the experiment we chose the Fastest option which automatically chose Hong Kong.
With the TunnelBear turned on, we tried logging in with our HBOGo subscription which relies on our geo-location for their suggested content and selections of programs and movies. But despite being on a VPN service, HBOGo went back with an Out of Service Notice on their site, citing that the said service is unavailable on our current location. This was a bummer given HBOGo is supposed to service the general Asia area but surprisingly, Hong Kong is not included in the areas that are being serviced by the HBOGo. We also tried changing these to other locations i.e., Germany and France, but it went back with the same notice.
When we tried our Netflix account, it also showed geo-located content that was trending in Hong Kong and not the Philippines. We tried how fast it will load the movie while logged-in the VPN but it seems our free MBs are being depleted fast since it is charged against all currently opened windows. Once the streaming began it took a bit of a long time about five (5) minutes to shift the streaming quality from 480p to 720p (HD) quality. We also noticed that the quality of the video shifts from 720p intermittently in ten (10) minutes or so but it stabilized eventually.
Our tests were cut short because our free 500mb was almost consumed with these two tests involved high data and streaming activity and requirements. This is a downer given we would have loved to explore the sites that we have bookmarked that would have tested the VPNs capability to mask the user's location and activity online.
When deciding to get a VPN service it is important to be clear about what you need it to do for you. It may wholly depend on your reasons why you would want to use a VPN might be better addressed in other ways that are far more effective than a VPN.
If you're looking to improve your security and privacy one should address first other areas of vulnerability before even signing up for a VPN.
It may be said that VPNs can theoretically allow you to shift your current geo-location, there is heavy evidence that suggests that the majority of people use VPNs this way, and we strongly suggest that you avoid using it just to access video content since you are just wasting your money on this. The majority of the streaming service providers have already figured out ways to block such activity in their services.
At the end of the day, it will greatly depend still on every user to protect and make sure their data is secured online, VPN service is not a magic bullet for your Internet security woes nor it will make you anonymous. Like we've said earlier there are still other steps and ways to make your browsing activity and your data more secure.
Not that we need a bear to protect it but who needs one when you got a big-ass gate to start with?