Online Privacy Methods: VPN
Any time you are connected to the internet you have associated with your specific computer, an IP address. These are a string of numbers that look like this: 200.300.55.79 You will see YOUR IP address in the box below which indicates how easy it is to see who and where you are located. Your IP address belongs to your ISP and their logs will reflect which specific customer is using that IP, when they are connected to the internet, what web sites you visit and who you send or receive emails from. They could actually read every one of your emails as they pass from their servers to your computer. This information can be provided to third parties without your knowledge or consent. The NSA could be getting copies of everything you do while online...but we assume you are doing nothing illegal of course.
The single easiest and most secure way to ensure your privacy is by using a VPN or Virtual Private Network. This is the same technology big corporations use to connect all their offices to the home computer. When you do your banking at a national bank for instance, their mainframes connect to their branches via a VPN.
A VPN encrypts your data. For big business they typically have a static IP address as they are not trying to hid who they are, only to protect the content of their communications via strong encryption of the data. Your choice can be to do the same, not worry about someone knowing who you are while making it impossible to see what you are doing while connected. This is good security for any business of course.
Some people may prefer to be anonymous while using the internet for various reasons. Perhaps you just wish to assert your right to privacy. We sure do not recommend anyone use any privacy measures to do bad things like bank fraud, violation of copyrights, illegal content etc.
This is a new world where the internet is the single most powerful means for oppressed people to express displeasure with their leaders and to organize dissent. The internet was a critical part of the Arab Spring. Persons involved in dissent risk their very lives if their governments learn their identities. A VPN can protect those engaged in the liberation of their own peoples from oppression.
Journalists may wish to communicate with informants or the above dissidents and need to hid his tracks in order to protect sources as well as him self.
A whistle blower, fearing retaliation for exposing an embarrassing truth may wish to protect their identity.
A VPN that assignees you a different IP address each time you connect can make it appear as if you are connecting from a totally different location than you actually occupy. You could be in Miami Florida and have an IP address that would show you as connected to the internet from London, Paris, Hong Kong or just about anywhere in the world. Log off and the next time you may re-appear on the othr side of the world. At the same time any data you send is encrypted with security protocols that could take even the NSA a year to decode...if at all.
VPN, properly configured, will protect all of your internet activity including your email clients, Skype, Messenger and Chat programs, torrents...anything that comes and goes via your internet. It can even be configured to shut down programs ability to connect if the VPN connection failes!
Another security issue to consider is your DNS. Normally your ISP specifies the DNS IP addresses they use to connect to resources on the web. DNS is a system to convert plain text URL to the destination's IP address. If your VPN leaks this DNS information it is possible to track back to your ISP. I alway suggest a leak test but also deleting your ISP provided DNS and replacing them with some other DNS provider. Here are three good alternatives. You can actually all all of these for redundancy if you like. Just delete those supplied by your ISP.
Yes there are cons to using a VPN. More and more sites will simply block your access if your IP is known to belong to a VPN or proxy server. You may find using Google as your search provide comes with a level of harrasment in the form of endless annoying CAPTCHA requests unless you log in to your Google account which basically negates the very reason you may want to use VPN. Google then catalogs every search you do and ties it to your identity. I have had to abandon Google for duckduckgo.com
( Side note, there is a browser plug in you can add to block Google from collecting tracking data when you visit sites with their code inserted )
Some sites (such as the aforementioned Google) will force you to complete CAPTCHA over and over if you use a VPN making privacy a hassle. You are basically forced by some sites to choose between privacy and convenience or access.
Email servers may block you from sending email from your desktop client. Some may block your connection to web based mail but so far I have not had that happen with those I use. It may be necessary to ask for a list of the IP's your VPN uses and have your sys admin add those to whitelist your mail server.
Your DNS can give you away even if using a VPN. If you are using a DNS provided by our ISP that can be "leaked" to others telling them at least the name of the ISP you are using. Consider replacing with either a DNS provided by the VPN company or one of the below. Even if your not using a VPN this can provide some protection.
( Web sites are known to the internet by way of numbers, not names. DNS data connects the domain name to the IP address of the actual site )
See resource links for Leak Tests.