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An introduction to VPNs
What does VPN mean?
To understand what is vpn and how does it work, we need to start from the basics. Simply put, a VPN, or virtual private network, is a collection of computers (or independent networks) connected together over a public network i.e. the internet.
Businesses utilise VPNs to bring together distant data centres, and people use them to access network resources when they aren’t physically on the same local area network (LAN), and also as a way for encrypting / securing their communication when they’re on an untrusted public network.
To connect to a virtual private network, you normally launch a VPN client on your computer/device (alternately, you may have to open a link on a specific website), log in with your username and password, and wait as your device exchanges trusted keys with a remote (distant) server. After both computers have verified one another as being authentic, all of your internet communication becomes secured and encrypted from third parties.
The most crucial thing you need to understand about a VPN is that it secures the internet connection of your computer to ensure that every bit (pun unintended) of data you’re transmitting and receiving is secured and encrypted from anyone snooping about the network.
These days, VPN setups are supported by more than just computers. VPN on iphone and apple TV vpns are just two examples of smart devices using VPNs to access websites, which are geo-restricted. Many modern VPN routers are available which you can configure for connecting to a VPN and then enjoy VPN connectivity across all devices connected through the router, without having to set them up individually.
Now that some of the more basic questions are answered, such as what does VPN stand for, we’ll use the subsequent chapters to discuss which VPNs are best for Australia.
Why do we need a VPN?
Having answered what is VPN connection, it is time to understand why it is used:
A VPN by itself is merely a means to enhance your internet safety and access resources on a network to which you aren’t physically connected. What you use the VPN connection for, is a whole different story.
Normally, VPN users can be divided into specific categories:
- The worker/student: This individual has responsibilities to fulfil, and utilise a VPN given to them by their workplace / school to access network resources when they are travelling or at home. In the majority of cases, this individual already has a VPN service given to them free of charge, so they aren’t looking to shop around. Also, if they’re concerned about security, they can always start up their VPN software client at a public spot such as a café or airport to use the public Wi-Fi securely, without fear of eavesdropping.
- The downloader: Whether it is legal downloads or illegal ones, this individual wants to stay clear of the company’s witch-hunt just because they’ve got a P2P torrent client installed on their computer. VPNs are the only sole secure way of using a software such as BitTorrent, everything else is just a fake sense of security. It is better to secure your internet downloading activity than to end up in a lawsuit in a court, or paying a huge fine for something that you may not even have done.
- The privacy concerned / security advocate: Whether they’re in an environment that is strictly monitored, or in a totally open and free one, this individual will use a VPN service to keep their communications encrypted and secured from watchful eyes. They may even do this in their own homes! Think of this as paranoia, but for them, unsecured communications means that they’re at an active risk.
- The globetrotter: This person wishes to witness the Olympics live in their full glory, without having to resort to second-rate local networks. They want to watch their favourite TV shows as they’re aired rather than having to wait for re-broadcasts, translations or versions aired in other countries. They like to listen to geo-restricted internet radio streams, or wish to use a new web service/app which is limited to a certain portion of the globe.
- A mixture of the above categories: Chances are that if you’re not one of the particular types of VPN users mentioned above, you’re a combination of them depending on your specific VPN usage habits. In every one of the aforementioned cases, a VPN connection can be extremely handy, whether it is to protect your communication in an unsecured environment, or to access secure data at the workplace, or just to hide your IP from the MPAA.
What has made VPNs popular in Australia?
A large proportion of internet users in Australia is beginning to utilise VPNs, with one big VPN provider witnessing a 500% raise in VPN subscriptions in the Australian market.
This huge increase in VPN usage results from several major changes in the methods for tracking Australians’ online activity, including a mandatory data retention legislation getting passed, along with an important Federal Court anti piracy Australia ruling, which grants holders access to personal data of pirates in order to take legal action.
All these rulings have been to curb piracy in Australia, but that doesn’t mean that innocent Australian internet users won’t get caught in the crossfire between the internet police and internet piracy Australia. Many internet users have anticipated this drastic shift in Australia anti piracy policies and have made the jump to VPN secured internet, while many more are seriously considering it.
With Australians being in jeopardy of having their online activity monitored closely, the Federal Government has also considered a draft legislation to block overseas piracy websites (e.g. sites that promote movie piracy Australia) and enforced the introduction of a new code in the industry to implement three strikes infringement notices for those who do copyright infringement.
This means that as many as 16% of Australians have begun to use a service such as Tor / a VPN to secure their online privacy, as per fresh research from Essential Media, with over 20% of Australians between the ages of 18 and 34 paying for masking their online identity.
Virtual Private Network service providers believe that considerable changes to how online activity is regulated in Australia are responsible for the increasing trend of VPN subscriptions in the country.
Digital marketing strategist at PureVPN, Ali Mansoor, says that VPN subscriptions in Australia have been increasing ever since October 2014 – this is the same time as when iiNet began to take legal initiative with Dallas Buyers Club, new internet surveillance powers were given to ASIO and the Parliament was hit with the Data Retention Bill.
Mansoor says that interest has been on the rise ever since.
Early march saw the subscriptions skyrocket, according to him. They witnessed a 500% increase in Australian subscriptions. Sales and traffic from Australia have exceeded even the US!
But it isn’t just online surveillance and data retention that has encouraged Australians to subscribe to a VPN service – gaining access to content has also been a major driving force.
Mansoor says that entertainment is probably the chief reason for people to subscribe to the service initially. They look forward to the upcoming season of HBO’s wildly popular TV show, Game of Thrones.
But Australians are also going for VPNs access legitimate online content services, such as the newly launched streaming service by HBO from the US called HBO Now.
According to Mansoor, online traffic towards their blogs indicated an interest in the new HBO Now service and ways to access it. Australians seem to be enthusiastic about the service. But he added that even though it had boosted sales and traffic for VPNs, it definitely couldn’t compare to the increase triggered by the Dallas Buyers Club case or the Data Retention Bill.
This trend isn’t just exclusive to a single VPN provider. Ben Van der Pelt of TorGuard, while being interviewed by TorrentFreak, said that their VPN service has gained popularity with Australians, with subscriptions from Australia now making up for over 50% of their total business.
How to set up your own VPN?
Your very own secure private network
In this tutorial, we’ll be using the freeware Hamachi utility to set up VPN on a home computer.
A word before we begin…
Hamachi isn’t the only utility for setting up your own secure VPN – there are others such as OpenVPN, which is the favorite of many security conscious internet users. For out intents and purposes, however, Hamachi fits the bill for being the most easy to use, minimum configuration requiring VPN tool out there. The other solutions aren’t all that difficult either, but Hamachi is extremely easy to install and setup VPN.
Before heading out, there are some requirements which must be met to ensure that this is the optimal solution for you:
- You must have a computer at home that stays always on.
- You don’t want to use, or don’t trust, third party VPN service providers such as proxy VPNs.
- You haven’t got an office / school which offers free VPN services.
- You don’t have the finances to afford a paid VPN service.
If the above requirements seem to be the situation you’re in, and you’ve got a nice, robust broadband internet connection installed at home (keep in mind that when you’re connected to it, you’ll be transmitting your data to your home network and in reverse, so you may feel that the network performance has gone down due to double-hopping) then it is time to begin.
Setting up and configuring Hamachi
Hamachi is compatible with Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, so get the installer for your OS from their website. It has two variants – a free version for non-commercial use which has all the features we require (the ability to use our home network from any location over an encrypted and secure connection), and a paid version which has extra features, which the average user won’t ever need.
Here’s what you’ll basically need to do for VPN setup using Hamachi:
- Download Hamachi from their website.
- Run the downloaded file. If this is the first time you’re running it, click on the Blue power button to start the software.
- Click on the Network menu, select ‘Create a new network’, and give your network a meaningful name and a strong, good password.
- You’re all done.
Once you have configured your VPN network on the always-on home computer, fire up your notebook, netbook or any other computer system you want to take with you, and install the Hamachi client there.
Instead of making a new network, join the network you created earlier on the home computer, using its network name and password. It really is that simple – no technical configuration is needed whatsoever. Note down the network name / password because you might need them again for another device.
After you’ve joined your home network, the two computers can access one another securely from anywhere, as if they were connected to the same LAN (local area network). You can add as many devices as you want to the network you’ve created, using the method described above.
Browsing through your secured VPN network
Many people use VPNs to shield their browsing while they’re on an unsecured network, for instance, a public network at a coffee shop or local library. Using Hamachi, you can turn your always-on home computer system into a proxy which can be used to securely browse the internet when you’re on the move.
Privoxy is a utility which helps with this, and it might get a little on the technical side, but it still beats the alternatives.
Essentially, you’ll be connecting to your home computer which will feed you the sites and services you want to access. This means that your browsing experience may feel slower compared the public wi-fi connection, but this slowdown will not be noticeable if you’ve got a sturdy broadband link at home for your always-on computer.
Besides, the slowdown will be a small tradeoff when compared to the security you’ll be receiving.
Which VPNs are the best?
What Makes for a Good VPN?
The most well rounded VPNs provide a balance of features – price, server location and connectivity protocols. Some VPN gateways are good for use in certain circumstances, others are meant for bypassing geographic restrictions placed by some companies on their services and apps, whereas others are geared towards individuals who perform heavy downloading and wish their activities to remain private. Here are the features you should look out for in a good VPN:
When you’re searching for a good VPN, you’ll come across terms such as SSL/TLS (also known as OpenVPN capability), PPTP, L2TP, IPSec and other types of VPNs. Samara Lynn, PCMag’s Lead Analyst for Networking and Small Business, had this to say about whether one type of VPN was better than the others for the average consumer looking for a trusty VPN: SSL is what is commonly used these days. All of these protocols will provide a secure connection.” She also pointed out that the majority of solutions aren’t visible to the end-user in any case. Strictly speaking, every protocol has its own advantages and disadvantages, and if you’re worried about this e.g. PPTP vulnerabilities, it is likely that you already know about them. These issues aren’t a problem for many normal users, but those looking for VPN providers to employ in a corporate environment almost always stick with SSL or IPSec clients anyways.
Corporate and Exit Locations:
Depending on which Australia VPN you’re using, its location, as well as the exit locations you can choose from, are crucial factors. If you want to bypass a geo-restriction and watch live television in the UK, for instance, you’ll need to find VPN solutions with servers in the United Kingdom. If you’re worried about your privacy due to state-sponsored eavesdropping, you should go for a non-Australian VPN. In a similar fashion, if you’re using a US VPN, it will be subject the laws of that country i.e. they might be compelled to hand over usage data to authorities on demand. Lots of people make more of this issue than they should (there are foreign VPNs who give their data to governments without hesitation) but it is vital to make sure that the VPN service you pick has servers in several different locations – or, at the very least, the location which is of interest to you.
When you’re connected to a virtual private network, you’re trusting the provider with your browsing data. Your communications might be safe from external snooping, but other systems on this VPN network, particularly the operator, can record your data if they wish.
You won’t be invulnerable over the internet simply by using a VPN. You’ll need to ensure that you use HTTPS protocol whenever possible, and you still need to be wary of what you download. Certain VPN providers understand that the customer has other concerns besides the general ‘how can I hide my IP’, which is why they include anti-malware clients as bundles to ensure that you aren’t downloading trojans or viruses to your computer e.g. Hotspot Shield offers malware protection for those who subscribe to its premium service.
If you wish to get a paid VPN service (or even if you’re using a free one), you should get a uniform experience across all devices. Many big providers have desktop as well as mobile clients for single users, and corporate providers are catching up as well. Ensure that you’re not forced to use two separate VPNs with separate policies by the same provider just for the sake of securing both your laptop and your phone.
Last of all, read the user agreement carefully. Understand the difference between free and paid services. Free services can be a bit tricky, since they might include bloatware with their installers or place ads on your browser as part of their policy.
They’re great for casual, quick-and-easy VPN usage, but if you want a better experience, subscription services are the way to go. Even so, just because you’re paying for it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t have any quirks, so you should still scan the user agreement carefully.
A combination of price and features is what defines a VPN, but there are plenty of lousy services which give the appearance of being great. You should check reviews on trusty websites to get a better idea of how well a VPN performs. User reviews are also a good way to assess what you should expect from the VPN.
The best VPN provider in Australia
With more than 92 servers in over 75 countries (making it one of the fastest VPN Australia), ExpressVPN is a premium VPN provider that stands apart from the rest. It provides a user-friendly and reliable experience which makes it ideal for both newbies and seasoned VPN users.
Because ISPs are ordered to record internet activity in Australia, Express VPN shines when it comes to securing your online data from prying eyes through its military grade AES-256 bit encryption. It uses L2TP/IPsec, OpenVPN, SSTP, and PPTP protocols to make agency eavesdropping virtually impossible and they also make accessing both Hulu Plus and US Netflix in Australia easy!
The software is compatible with a wide range of devices – basically all mainstream internet devices / operating systems, and has detailed tutorials and guides on its website for those who want to learn how to get the most out of the service.
ExpressVPN has a complete package which is available in pricing plans for 1, 6 and 12 months. It is up to you to pick one from which is most suitable for you.
The one month pricing plan can be purchased for a flat fee of $12.95, while the six month package is purchasable for $9.99 a month – amounting to $59.94 in total. The full year plan has a monthly cost of $8.32, which totals up to $99.84 a year.
This balance of price and features make it one of the bestvpns in Australia.