Private Internet Access is a VPN connection for obscuring web footprints, and its creator—a company called London Trust Media—very generously gave Geek Insider a three-month trial run to see how we like it. Accordingly, my task was to give it a try and let you know my thoughts. I was rather looking forward to it, I must say. While I’d considered investigating a VPN subscription before, it had always slipped my mind in the end, so it seemed about time to get some hands-on experience of this exciting world of secrecy. Those of you who don’t want to be spoiled on my impression of Private Internet Access, close your eyes now, and endeavor to retroactively have not read the title: it’s excellent (the VPN, I mean, not the title… although that’s good too).
Taking Back Anonymity
You know the fabric of the internet has been called into question when you can’t make a typo without half-expecting an NSA monitor to remotely correct it for you before logging your weak typing skills in your formal record. For some strange reasons—like, say, not wanting to have their activities pored over by faceless fastidious bureaucrats—there are more people than ever before looking to restore some semblance of online privacy. Of the various options available to them, subscribing to a VPN service is the most straightforward.
A VPN—or Virtual Private Network—works by routing data requests, essentially. When you connect to one, it acts as a go-between for your incoming and outgoing traffic, meaning any attempt to track or trace your communications is forced to traipse through a maze of redirections. As with anything like this, what exactly you get depends on which service you use, so I didn’t know what exactly to expect when I loaded up the Private Internet Access client for the first time.
Installation and Initialization
I downloaded the application and ran it; aside from placing the program on my machine, it also had to install a TAP driver, thereby creating a virtual device through which the networking wizardry could be performed. I will note that the installation of a wireless dongle the following day caused some kind of issue with it and I was required to reinstall the driver, though a link is usefully presented in the application folder and it took only a few seconds.
When I started the client, I was asked for my login information and presented with a few basic options such as the region I wanted to be virtually placed in. I went with UK London, but I don’t imagine it really matters (though I would have liked the option to go with a custom entry, like “Parts Unknown” or “The Surface of the Sun”). I saved, then connected, and the little red icon turned green. That’s it, at least for those who share my lack of interest in the advanced settings.
Basic Functionality Assessment
My first order of business was to see what my location appeared as, so I went to one of the many “I seem to have forgotten where I am, please help me” websites and was surprised to find myself in the middle of a German city called Koblenz. Subsequent connections have positioned me in the set region of London, so I’m not sure what happened there. Still, it makes no difference where it puts me, as long as it’s not where I actually am. My IP address identification was similarly inaccurate, so I left some distinctly unpleasant messages on the NSA feedback forum.
I ran a few downloads from various places to see how my connection speed was affected, and it was tough to tell what resulted from normal variation and what was due to the VPN. As far as I’m concerned, that means it’s plenty good enough. I’ve now had it running for a couple of days, during which time I’ve managed some multiplayer gaming, a video call through Skype, several audio chats though Steam, and a lot of general browsing, and I’ve experienced no issues beyond an occasional disconnection and the confusion of the Steam store prices showing up in euros. I’m confident that I could have it make use of it all the time from now on without affecting my online experience much at all, which is very satisfying.
Alternatives and Usefulness
I’m not the sort of person who is enormously concerned by privacy issues—living, as I do, a very dull and uninteresting life—but I have tried the Tor browser, another piece of software with anonymity as a goal. It was pretty much a tweaked version of Firefox set to run everything through the Tor network, and… well, it worked, I suppose, just not very quickly. It might be a good thing to use if you have to work on a shared computer temporarily, but it’s not something I’d recommend with much enthusiasm.
As for whether this kind of online protection Private Internet Access offers is worth the money and effort for the average internet user with Tor-related options available for free, I really think it is. People spend far more than they need to on antivirus software—since free antivirus software is often perfectly adequate—but with a VPN you get something you simply cannot get for free. I’d also note that Private Internet Access pleasantly stunned me in how unobtrusive it is, and considering that it’s simple to set up and clearly effective in what it does, I don’t see the cost as unreasonable.
Policy and Pricing
The main worry with things like this is that we can never be entirely sure how much of our activity is being logged by VPN providers. It’s easy to leave wording somewhat vague and trust that people won’t ask too many questions, and it would be galling to find personal information left in the hands of yet another shadowy company. To investigate the issue, sharing site TorrentFreak contacted various services with questions, and Private Internet Access answered encouragingly:
We absolutely do not maintain any VPN logs of any kind. We utilize shared IP addresses rather than dynamic or static IPs, so it is not possible to match a user to an external IP. […] We will not share any information with third parties without a valid court order. With that said, it is impossible to match a user to any activity on our system since we utilize shared IPs and maintain absolutely no logs.
I’ve no reason to distrust them on that, and the fact that their service comes highly recommended by a lot of different sites means I don’t have any reservations about relying on them in the future, something I may well do.
The cheapest plan comes in at just under $40 dollars per year, and for that you get a secure account usable on up to 5 devices at the same time with unlimited bandwidth. It’s not really that much to ask, working out as about $3.33 per month, so for the price of some snacks and soda you could enjoy sending the authorities on wacky chases. Private Internet Access gets the Geek Insider seal of approval, only I haven’t designed one yet, so just imagine a big stamp saying “Geek Insider Approved”. If you have no imagination, just visit the Private Internet Access website and write “this is very good” on your monitor.