At the end of November 2016 the UK government stealthily put into play the Investigatory Powers Act, commonly referred to in the media and public as The Snoopers Charter. Since then online journalism has gone into overdrive talking about using VPNs. I’ve been using VPNs infrequently for a number of years, whilst travelling, or using public wifi spots. I’ve now reach a point of an always on VPN mentality. Here’s what I’ve learnt this Christmas in what I’m dubbing the advent calendar of privacy.
Don’t use free services, find a subscription
The bottom line as with anything is if there isn’t money funding it there’s a good chance it will not be maintained. Finding a good VPN service is not difficult. After experimenting with a variety of services – Lantern, TunnelBear, Anonymizer and TorGuard I settled with NordVPN.
The reason behind this had a lot to do with a well timed Black Friday sale that meant I’ve paid for two years upfront which covers as many devices as I wish (more on that shortly) and was around $79. That’s a huge saving (you can get this discount too, link below).
NordVPN also is helped by several key factors that I recommend you look into before signing up to any of these providers.
- Zero Log Policy
NordVPN doesn’t record your traffic in any way which means they can’t be asked for it by any international agency. Some VPN services are required to keep logs. This is due to the country of origin of the business. Keep this in mind when review the service you want to use.
- They are served with legal requests and choose to ignore them
Despite its name, NordVPN is established in Panama. It means it is out of all international jurisdictions other than Panama’s. Any request from the UK, USA etc is ignored, binned, they have no power there.
- Fast streaming and file sharing
They have built an infrastructure that allows for high-speed downloading. This is not that common in VPNs due to their very nature (bouncing your traffic around multiple nodes to anonymise it). I’ve had consistently high download rates and video streaming of up to around 30MB on some servers.
- Simple interface
The desktop app for your main machine is very easy to use, as is the app for your phone which brings me to the next and final plus
- Mobile app always on
This is a big one for me. The mobile app (tested on android) I can leave on permanently with no issues yet. I did find uploading a video at one point was taking longer than expected, but it quickly resolved itself. More importantly your subscription covers the use of the software on all devices that it can be installed on.
US customers can also purchase a router which has been flashed with their software to blanket cover a building. I expect to see more international flashes becoming available next year.
There are lots of other great things about NordVPN such as the ability to give a list of apps you would like it to immediately terminate if it fails to connect to a server to ensure no traffic is leaked out without it being hidden.
But there are some issues too
Not everything is plain sailing when it comes to having an always on VPN. Whilst you will be more confident your data isn’t being picked up, there are a few things working against you, even for the most basic tasks.
Google has a shit fit
Yes, I do see the irony in having all my services running on Google. All my mail accounts etc are through Google Apps for Business and quite frequently I have encountered Google determining my traffic is not normal and asking for verification.
You may have experienced this if you’ve gone abroad and tried to log in, your bank may have done this with your cards too. It’s a relatively painless thing, but worth noting that it’s not a problem, you can move forward just confirm it is you.
Public Wifi can deny access
So far, I’ve only encountered this with one service – The_Cloud. If you’ve ever run your machine using Google DNS to improve speed and attempted to use The_Cloud at one of their sponsored coffee shops or bars you may have discovered you can’t connect until you put your DNS back. Well, similar thing happened to me with the VPN.
This is extra frustrating as one of the best uses of a VPN is to protect yourself on unknown and public Wifi networks. In this instance it occurred in a hotel room but I did find a way around this changing the server to a UK server through the interface. Once the traffic was being detected as being inside the UK it allowed me to connect.
Blocking internal traffic
This could well be anomaly. I encountered a few times issues whilst streaming traffic internally on the network. I frequently use Sofaplay to stream to my Samsung TV XboxOne or Chromecast, with Beamer being used to transmit to an Apple TV.
Updated: Since writing this post updates have been released and Sofaplay does now function as intended whilst NordVPN is running.
I found that depending on what settings I was using a the time Sofaplay couldn’t see the TV on the network unless I disable the VPN, same with Beamer. As soon as I switched off NordVPN they would spot devices and you can start streaming. I’ve recently purchased a Sonos Play 1, but haven’t yet checked to see if this will encounter a similar problem.
I have successfully been able to connect to NAS boxes and servers within a network whilst running NordVPN. I wonder whether this could be down to the protocols used by media streaming apps?
The future is slightly brighter
Whilst the EU High Court has determined the Act is in breach of human rights sadly we must remember we will shortly be out of the EU meaning that although there will be encouragement for the most part to maintain many of the laws that have been built by all of us in the last 50yrs, we are not obliged to abide by them. Even if it is removed now, by 2020 it could easily be passed back through.
Get money off NordVPN
I’ve been given a code from my account which I think allows for 75% off at the time of writing this post http://nordvpn.com/?ref=6953015a please feel free to give it a try, and tell me what you think if you do decide to buy.
Have you got any tips for people like me becoming more conscientious about our data rights and privacy? Share in the comments section below.
Also published on Medium.