If you keep on top of tech news (The Register is a very good site for this), you will have noticed a growing campaign by many politicians and even some media to seize control of the internet and monitor your activity online.
This is quite unsettling for me. For one, I think that ISPs should effectively be a dumb pipe. Just like the post office, your water, gas and energy suppliers, they bring the internet to your home and charge you for it – no glamour or value added services – I just want my internet, thanks. Imagine if the postman opened all your letters before he delivered them through your door? This is effectively what the government wants ISPs to do with your packets. Furthermore it’s one big slippery slope to facism. Today, they’re monitoring for pirates, tomorrow they’re reading your emails for signs of political dissent.
On the other hand there are new services like BBC iPlayer, Hulu and Spotify which block traffic from certain countries. Even if you’re a TV Tax payer, you still can’t access iPlayer from abroad!
I’ve used a blocklist since 2003 and a web proxy for hiding my IP address whilst casually browsing, but I consider these no longer adequate for either the threat to our privacy or accessing media services online. So I tried out a couple of free VPN services and I’ve settled on one now which is paid for, and I’ve now budgeted in as part of our broadband costs. I will blog about this later.
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) tunnels all your internet traffic through an alternate network of servers, usually encrypted, so that whoever, or whatever, is at the other end sees that server and it’s IP address and not your own. Traditionally VPNs have been used by companies to provide a virtual network for employees to sign into from insecure home computers, but there are now many services springing up all over the internet offering free or cheap VPN services for private use.
The anonymous part is important. If the VPN company keeps records, they can be subpoenaed to provide your account information – so you’re not protected. It’s also important that the VPN is encrypted, or your ISP can view your traffic – we want them to be a dumb pipe and not trouble themselves over our online habits!
If you want to try out an easy to set up and free VPN service, check out It’s Hidden – though they have recently restricted their free connections to 20 minutes. There are others with clients you can download, but some of them inject their own pop-up adds – a small price to pay for the free privacy.
Whether VPN services will be the future, is anyone’s guess. I suspect that when the government finally catches up and realises that everyone is surfing over an encrypted, anonymous connection they will try to crack down on these services too – by then I imagine pirates will already have created or found new tech to stay anonymous and be moving on to that, which is how it should be.