VPNs

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Stop prying eyes with a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

A VPN can protect you from hackers and make it easier for you to access more content from around the world.

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What is a VPN?

All devices that access the internet are assigned an IP (Internet Protocol) address, which lets websites and services know your location. A VPN works by masking a device’s real IP address and making it appear to be accessing the internet from somewhere else.

A VPN achieves this by connecting to a private network over the internet. These private networks can be located in multiple locations within any country. For example, if you’re in New Zealand and you link up with a VPN server in a United Kingdom location, anyone looking at your internet session (such as Google) will think you are in the United Kingdom.

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Geoblocking

Geoblocking is where a website or streaming on demand service restricts access to its content unless the user is from a selected country. For example, the US Netflix library has much more content than the New Zealand library, but you can’t access that content unless you are within the United States. Reasons for geoblocking vary, but are commonly driven by protecting region-specific content rights. If you’re looking to access geoblocked content, VPNs can be a solution. Note, while unblocking geoblocked content is legal, it can often breach a service’s terms and conditions.

How we test VPNs

Ease of use

We test how easy each service is to install on a Windows system and how easy it is to use. We consider whether the VPN client program can be configured to run automatically on start-up, can be set to connect automatically when the program is launched, does a speed check to detect the fastest server to connect to, and if it automatically selects the best server available.

Performance

Performance accounts for the discrepancy in download speed when using the VPN. The lower the discrepancy, the faster the connection. All the tested VPNs had some discrepancy. A discrepancy of less than 5 percent results in an almost unnoticeable reduction in speed, but more than 25 percent results in sluggish speeds.

Privacy and functionality

Our privacy score is based on how many features the VPN has for protecting your identity and activity. We look at features such as user data logging, data encryption and protection against deep packet inspection.

Our latest test includes two new privacy checks, which are included in the privacy score.

DNS leak

A DNS (Domain Name System) tells your computer how to route all your traffic through to the internet. A DNS leak is where a VPN doesn’t communicate with your computer’s operating system correctly. Some of your data is sent through the anonymous network but the rest is sent through your traditional network, meaning you aren’t fully anonymous. This especially affects background programs such as updates or programs that run constantly. Our test assesses whether a VPN directs all traffic through the anonymous network, which means you are fully anonymous even when you have background programs running.

Disconnection protection

Disconnection protection stops all or some of the transmission to/from the internet if the VPN is suddenly disconnected. This means your data is secured until you reconnect or close the VPN. Our testing checks for some type of disconnection protection or at least a warning you have been disconnected from the VPN.

How do I use a VPN?

You can use a VPN on your PC, laptop, a mobile device or router. How the VPN operates depends on what you want covered. If you set up the VPN on a single device, such as your PC or smartphone, you can choose to have it always on or only when you want.

If you set up your router with a VPN, you can hide the IP address on all the devices that connect to your router. Your VPN will have instructions on how to do this.

Security on public WiFi

If you use public WiFi, such as those found at cafes and airports, or an unsecured network to access the internet, you should take steps to protect your identity.

The nature of these hotspots make them a target for hackers attempting to steal personal information, such as passwords or credit card details, from unsuspecting users.

These hackers operate by connecting to the unsecured network, waiting for someone to sign in, then attempting to intercept their details. Using a VPN helps protect you from these kind of attacks by disguising your location and making it appear that you aren’t on the unsecured network. You should always use a VPN when using public WiFi.

When should I use a VPN?

  • Connecting to a work or other private network.
  • When you are on an unsecured network.
  • When you are on a public network (secured or not).
  • Testing the cause of speed issues with your ISP.
  • When you perform private and banking activity on anything but your home network.
  • To bypass geoblocks.
  • To protect yourself from hackers.

VPN alternatives

There are alternatives to using to a VPN. The 3 major types are Smart DNS, browser-based, and dedicated browsers.

It is important to note these are not VPNs, and don’t provide the same level of security. They should not be used as an alternative to a VPN when connecting to public WiFi.

The Smart DNS method requires you to install software, such as Unlocator. These programs intercept your location information and block it from websites you are accessing. They leave your IP address unaltered.

Browser-based alternatives, such as Hola and Media Hint, usually include installing an add-on in your browser, then all you do is click a button and your IP address appears to be from another country. But they come with risks. For example, Hola operates by loaning you another user’s IP address while yours is loaned to someone else. This means you have no idea what they’re doing with your IP address and what the repercussions of this may be.

Dedicated browsers, such as Tor, allow you to browse anonymously but background processes – such as software updates – are not covered by it.

We don’t recommend using a browser-based alternative to a VPN, as they do not disguise all the internet traffic coming from your computer. A program running in the background will still be using your original IP address.

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First Look: Norton WiFi Privacy

Norton's new mobile VPN - WiFi Privacy - has won our approval. It’s free to download but requires an annual subscription of US$30 (NZ$43).

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