After the Snowden revelations in 2013, the world discovered just how deep the surveillance rabbit hole goes. From PRISM to XKeyscore and secret FISA courts, everything you do online is captured, analyzed, and recorded for later use.
Anything you’ve said or thought, can and will be used against you in a court of law.
VPNs, or virtual private networks, allow users to connect anonymously to an intermediary server using an encrypted tunnel. In layman’s terms, your device connects to a VPN server and disguises any data you send or receive.
Now that we understand what a VPN is, lets look at the different types (Self-hosted, Mixed Traffic, TOR).
Self-hosted, or maintenance VPNs, are VPNs owned and utilized by the people who administer them. These are best used when routing your data through a home or business connection that you own and is known to be secure. Commonly, users of a self-hosted VPN may want to protect their sensitive data while on public WiFi, viewing network attached cameras, accessing file shares, or performing remote systems maintenance. While these will keep you safe from prying eyes between your computer or phone and your home or business, these will NOT protect against government surveillance or bad actors.
Mixed Traffic, or commercial VPNs, are VPNs owned by a 3rd party company or non-profit organization and utilized by clients from around the world. These are best used when you require a connection that can access services or websites that are geo-locked†, censored, or that require obfuscation. The most beneficial aspect of the Mixed Traffic VPN is the mix of other peoples data also exiting the server. This allows your encrypted data to be obfuscated or hidden amongst other users’ traffic from around the world.
While this will keep you safe from prying eyes between your computer or phone and your home or business, these are NOT guaranteed to protect you from government surveillance or bad actors. (Click here to read about logged or logless VPNs and the dangers inherent to mixed traffic VPNs.)
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The Onion Router, or TOR, is a decentralized network of users allowing each of their computers to be used as a node in a large network of mini-VPNs. Originally developed by the US Government for clandestine computer operations, the project is now open-source and under constant development by thousands of volunteers around the world. TOR is the standard in open-source free VPNs. While this will keep you safe from prying eyes between your devices and the clearnet, the normal everyday internet, it will also provide access to the darknet. Not nearly as scary or nefarious as it’s been made out to be, the darknet is a series of websites and services hidden in the network and inaccessible by users on the clearnet. Users of the TOR network should follow the guides available from the TOR Project. While the TOR network provides the highest level of anonymity on the web, TOR should NOT be used for illegal activities. State-level actors are constantly researching ways to break the encryption protocols of the TOR network and have often tricked users into revealing identifying information.
† Geo-Locked websites or services are those which restrict access based on the user’s country of origin. E.g.; Netflix geo-locks their subscribers from accessing certain shows outside of the United States.