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Goodbye Internet Privacy, Hello Anonymous VPNs: How To Keep Your Browser History Private

May 2017: Now that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can collect and sell your browsing history, what you do online can be a lot less private.

Fortunately, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a super-easy way to mask your identity online and keep your browser history private, as well as boost security. Free options are available, including ones built into web browsers or installed as extensions. Once you’ve installed the VPN you just use the internet as usual. Here’s a comparison of four free VPNs and a look at the business implications, too.

First, a quick primer on VPNs, in case you’re not familiar with them (full details here.)

VPNs work on computers and mobile devices and operate in the background. They tunnel all of your web browsing traffic to anonymous servers around the world, a process that hides your assigned IP address and true location from your ISP (and anyone else who may be snooping). You can (usually) choose from a list of countries that you’d like the VPN to tunnel your traffic through and you can (usually) change that location whenever you want. Or you can just let the VPN choose the fastest route at that moment. VPNs also encrypt internet traffic both coming and going so it’s safe during transit and your ISP has no idea which pages you’re visiting.

The tunneling process does add an extra step so it can slow down your browsing experience. It will only be a little slower if you have a good VPN and a fast internet connection, or noticeably slower if you don’t. A favorite VPN perk is the ability to access websites that may be blocked at work or school, meaning you can Facebook and watch YouTube videos whenever and wherever you want.

The easiest way to VPN — use Opera

The latest version of Opera (Opera.440) includes a free unlimited VPN browser. It’s the first browser to do this — just click the radio button in Preferences and anything you do in Opera automatically gets tunneled. The VPN technology is from SurfEasy, which Opera acquired and is also available as a stand-alone VPN and browser extension for Chrome.

Dozens of standalone VPNs compete for your monthly subscription — some are better than others and many have free versions and free trials for pay versions. Here are what four of the top free VPNs offer:

Opera (browser)TunnelBearCyberGhostHotspot Shield
Data capNone500MB (send a Tweet to get an extra 1GB)None750MB per day
IP locationsChoose from 5 locations or optimalChoose from 20 countriesChoose from 22 countriesU.S. only
Max devices in use at one timeAny desktop (use the SurfEasy apps for mobile)Up to 511
Ads in free version?NoNoYesYes
Speed (based on multiple reviews)Somewhat slower with VPN turned onReasonably fastNoticeably slowerSomewhat slower
Store activity logs? (see privacy policies)NoNoNoNo
Monthly fee for PremiumAs low as $4.99/moAs low as $2.91/moAs low as $5.99/mo
Premium highlights includeUnlimited data, Ghost Bear optionUp to 5 devices, faster connection, more serversUnlimited data, up to 5 devices, you choose an IP from 80+ countries
Good to knowBuilt-in, SurfEasy VPN available as a Chrome extensionAlways on, available as a Chrome browser extensionNo 24/7 support, logs you off after three hours (just log back on)Boots automatically, available as a Chrome browser extension

 

Depending on the VPN, data caps or slower browsing speeds might be enough to convince you to pay for a subscription. They’re pretty cheap, though, so if you’re online a lot, it may be worth it. Be aware that some commercial websites block VPNs, including Netflix and other video streaming services. But you can get around that by using specific VPNs.

One less thing to worry about

Whether you think you have something to hide or not, using a VPN is so easy that it’s no longer just for tech geeks and security-savvy businesses. Each little bit of private information about you that’s captured and logged can be combined with other information to create a complete picture of who you are and what you do. That goes for everyone — kids, grandparents, college students, business executives, travelers — everyone.

And while ISPs still have their own privacy policies and are currently saying they don’t intend to abuse the deregulation, they can change their policies at any time. And it’s unlikely an ISP actually will be prosecuted for violating its own policy.

You can avoid thinking about all of that by using a VPN and having your entire family use one, too. Soon, using VPNs will be more common than not using them.

Business implications of surfing without a VPN

Do your employees ever conduct research for your business at home? Or maybe do some work-related Google searches from their mobile devices when they have a free minute? If so, would anyone be interested in seeing what your employees are doing online or would you rather they keep their browsing history private?

At Leapfrog, security factors into everything we do, so we’re big fans of VPNs. Not only for all of the reasons mentioned above (and more), but also because ISPs have notoriously bad security — unfortunately ISPs can be hacked. Now that ISPs can legally gather more information about their customers and sell it, they are even more appealing targets from a hacker’s point of view. From the hackers points of view, why buy the information if you can just steal it? Leapfrog provides VPNs to all of our managed IT services clients and we do dozens of other things, large and small, to protect them from threats.

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