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June 10, 2023 | Becoming Invisible: How To Choose And Use A VPN

John Rubino is a former Wall Street financial analyst and author or co-author of five books, including The Money Bubble: What to Do Before It Pops and Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green-Tech Boom. He founded the popular financial website in 2004, sold it in 2022, and now publishes John Rubino’s Substack newsletter.

It’s creepy but true: Most of what we do online is observed by an ecosystem of predators ranging from marketers to hackers to foreign and domestic governments, many of which are out to trick, coerce, or rob us.

There’s no one silver bullet to blind and/or repel them all. But there are tools that address specific threats in certain situations. One of the most accessible tools is a virtual private network, or VPN, which hides a user’s IP address (the data that identifies the computer or phone where a signal originates), thus making some of our browsing and communicating opaque, if not invisible.

This accomplishes several things. It prevents aggression like brute force distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and minimizes “bandwidth throttling” that bedevils gamers and sometimes video streamers. It hides browsing activity from marketing companies and some government agencies. And it makes dangerously-exposed public Wi-Fi networks secure.

Put simply, if we use a high-quality VPN we’re no longer easy pickings for surveillance capitalism and the intelligence community.

How does a VPN work?

VPNs create a secure, encrypted connection between a user’s PC, tablet, or phone and the rest of the Internet, through which data can travel anonymously. As one VPN company explains it:

To ensure each data packet stays secure, a VPN wraps it in an outer packet, which is then encrypted through encapsulation. This is the core element of the VPN tunnel, keeping the data safe during transfer. When the data arrives at the server, the outer packet is removed through a decryption process.

Another source adds:

Think of it like this: when your car pulls out of your driveway, someone can follow you and see where you’re going, how long you’re at your destination, and when you return. They might even peek into your car to learn more about you. With a VPN, it’s like driving from your house into an underground tunnel, exiting into a closed parking garage, switching to a different car, and driving out. No one who was following you can know where you went.

This process can also be expressed with cool graphics:

And here’s a graphic showing more benefits of a VPN, followed by some bullet point explanations:

  • Access to geo-blocked content. VPNs let you spoof your location so you can access international Netflix catalogs or restricted YouTube videos.
  • Data encryption. Your browsing activity is usually visible to your internet service provider (ISP) or your university or company’s network administrator. Using a VPN keeps your traffic hidden so no one can see what you do.
  • Freedom from bandwidth throttling. Some ISPs limit your connection speed when they see that you’ve been streaming or downloading too often. VPNs hide your online activity, so these ISPs can no longer observe you.
  • Safe access to public Wi-Fi. Using public Wi-Fi without a VPN provides an opportunity for hackers to try and hijack your internet connection.

Are VPNs perfect? Alas, No

VPNs do some things really well. But they don’t solve every problem, and can sometimes cause a few of their own:

VPN encryption sometimes slows the connection, so depending on what you do online (if you’re a gamer, for instance), it might be worth paying up for a VPN that offers the fastest browsing and widest choice of encryption protocols.

If you log into a site by entering a password, that site knows it’s you even if you arrived via a VPN. If you give your credit card number to an online merchant, they have that data and can misuse it or lose it to hackers. If you click on an infected link you can still accidentally install malware. Advertisers can still track you using cookies or “fingerprint” you from your computer settings and browser preferences.

Governments, meanwhile, have the ability to track VPN users, but it’s hard and thus something they’ll only do if you’re a high-value target. One online source describes it this way, leaving us with an important consideration for choosing a VPN:

When federal agents suspect someone of a crime, they go to an ISP to ask for connection logs. After detecting VPN connections, they might try approaching a VPN provider. If a VPN keeps no logs of users’ data, they will have nothing to give away, even if they want to.

There’s a lot more to the “Can the predators track us even if we’re using a VPN?” question. But the general answer is yes, sometimes they can, but a VPN makes it way harder.

How to Choose a VPN

There’s a vast and growing selection of VPNs out there, but don’t expend a lot of time and effort searching for perfection. If you’re new to the concept, it’s better to choose a well-reviewed VPN that ticks most of the major boxes (speed, flexibility, reliability, security, coverage for multiple devices) and use it for a year. Then, armed with a bit of experience, start looking around for the very best choice.

PC Magazine publishes a lot of VPN-related articles and reviews. Here are their top picks for 2023:

Proton VPN 5.0 Exemplary Check Price

NordVPN 4.5 Outstanding Check Price

Surfshark 4.0 Excellent Check Price

TunnelBear 4.0 Excellent Check Price

IVPN 4.0 Excellent

Mullvad VPN 4.5 Outstanding

For users with very specific needs, PC Mag offers reviews by specialty:

Getting Started

Take some time to browse the above reviews and maybe read some in-depth online articles. Then once you’ve settled on a VPN service, download its app (the above “check price” links are a good starting point). Choose a subscription option, and follow the download instructions. Create a username and password, sign in, and follow the setup instructions.

Don’t expect to understand everything on day one. Use the VPN’s recommended settings to start with, and then over time get acquainted with the available options and do some customizing. As questions come up, Google them and you’ll find lots of “how to” resources.

A few relevant questions

Which server should you choose? VPNs operate numerous servers (computers that move signals around the Internet) which a user can choose as their data’s secret destination. Most VPNs will automatically choose the closest server because it’s presumably the fastest connection. That’s fine for day one, but later you might want to experiment with different servers to access foreign Netflix libraries or make yourself even harder to surveil.

Should you keep a VPN on all the time or just activate it when needed? A user has the option of setting their VPN to start automatically or turning it on or off manually. Each choice has plusses and minuses. Leaving your VPN switched on means your browsing is constantly encrypted and private. Not turning it on means you’re exposed but with a possibly faster connection. Which is preferable depends on whether you’re sharing sensitive information, using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, or accessing websites that aren’t fully encrypted.

One thing you definitely don’t want is for your VPN to disconnect without notifying you. So a VPN with a “kill switch” feature that cuts the network connection instantly when it stops working is crucial.

Much more to learn

This post is a primer to get us started. Next-level products and strategies will come in future articles. But for now, we’re equipped to get and start using a VPN.

Oh, and in the last Art of the Collapse post, I ran the following meme without understanding the joke and promised an explanation in this post. But I bounced the image off of a couple of techies and neither had an answer. So for now it remains a mystery. If anyone out there gets the joke, please pass it along.




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June 10th, 2023

Posted In: John Rubino Substack

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