Considering the obvious benefits of using a VPN, one, present company included, must ask the question: Why haven’t VPNs gone mainstream?
A VPN is a tunnel you establish between your device and some VPN server, securely encrypting your connection to that server. This server, instead of your device, then becomes your identity for the rest of the Internet. VPN tunnels can transport all types of data, such as http, email, ftp, allow you to virtually reside anywhere, obfuscate your identity, and secure your public Wifi connection, but you already knew that. Why then, aren’t more people using them?
As a long-term VPN user, blogger and VPN tester I see 4 main reason why not every device is protected by a VPN. Let’s look at those in detail:
Perception as Reality
VPN technology has been around since the dawn of the Internet, governments and corporations have used them to secure their communications and the US Government even financed the development of Tor, short for the The Onion Router, an alternative technology to encrypt your Internet traffic and hide your real self from the online world. So why then the negative public perception? I have a few suggestions:
- VPNs provide real privacy and allow you and I to hide from surveillance, something no government will want to pay money to promote
- VPNs hide your identity, making it at least difficult to build a usable marketing profile on you, very few corporations will go out of their way to educate the public on this…
- VPNs have been used by criminals and whistle blowers to hide their identities which has been widely publicized, and nobody wants to be associated with that…
- VPNs allow torrenting with impunity, surely the end of the world must be coming…
- VPN allow you to circumvent region restrictions, basically allowing users to get around cumbersome copyright laws and thereby reducing profits for media organizations and the entertainment industry. These guys are holding on to their disappearing business model with dear life, so no free advertising from them either…
- Tor enables access to the Darknet, better understood as the wild wild west of the Internet. Silk Road anyone? Do I need to say more?
If a bad rep weren’t enough, there is also the problem of actually using a VPN, starting, of course, with installing one. I feel pretty comfortable around technology, so you’d rightfully expect me to be able to download an app and follow the screen prompts, and you would be correct. I am familiar with the technology and terminology, but my Mom isn’t. She is still learning how to use an iPad she had for 2+ years; no dice.
But why stop here? Just try to install a VPN or Tor on your home router, you know, that darn dust-collecting box that you constantly need to unplug, or it goes senile and forgets which device to route those incoming packages to and simply has a seizure; game over! When it comes to installing a VPN on a router even seasoned professionals are starting to roll their eyes, and they know at least most of what the labels and drop-down choices in the interface mean.
While we can discuss usability to death, speed we can measure. In the past we have setup elaborate testing systems to measure VPN speeds as accurately as possible, but we have done away with that for a simple reason, it doesn’t matter! What matters is only how well a VPN performs when you use it, and most of us don’t do that in a laboratory.
Here is what we found:
Without VPN turned on download speeds were around 100Mb/sec – more than enough to have an all-around pleasant, although public, Internet experience. When I turn on the VPN on my router, download speeds decrease to 10 Mb/sec and 21 Mb/sec respectively; same computer, same WiFi Network, same time, same server city, different providers which will remain unnamed to protect the guilty. We have repeated this experiment multiple times over the last two weeks and the results have been almost identical. Just to be sure, we ran the same test using same VPN from both my laptop and my desktop to account for problems with the router and the results were the same.
Lets just not talk about Tor and speed in the same sentence, just not…
Tor is free, but VPN’s cost money. Can someone please tell me why I should pay an ISP extra money for the privilege of higher access speeds and then turn on my VPN to have those go down by 80% or more? Let’s be real, this sucks!
You can, of course, get a VPN for free, but there are costs involved running a VPN service, so if you aren’t paying for it, most likely you are the product or more accurately, the tiny bits of information you scatter all over the Internet are. Isn’t that exactly what you are trying to avoid? So, just don’t, don’t use a free VPN, just don’t.
For most of us, the benefits a VPN offers far outweigh the costs of about a coffee at Starbucks per month. Starbucks, of course, is a first world problem and many Internet users don’t have the ability to pay for VPNs to protect the privacy of their connection, and why should you pay extra just to not be spied on?
A decent VPN will cost you about USD50/year and you might find sales for a lot less than that. Some VPN providers are even offering ‘lifetime’ accounts, but I’d careful with those, while they might appear cheap, you may want to contemplate whose lifetime they are referring to and who you will be able to connect to if they become defunct.
At this point you might be thinking that VPNs are dying, but you would be wrong. Many providers have bitten the proverbial dust, which was probably a good thing, but many others survived and have done well. Their stigmas will fade, but they aren’t perfect.
People will, over time, adopt technologies that are useful. IMHO VPNs are such a technology. VPNs allow us, at least, some control over our data and therefore our privacy. While they have been expensive, their prices have decreased dramatically. I don’t expect them to get much cheaper any time soon, simply because it costs money to operate the service.
I love how engineers like to say security requires effort. Oh man, they aren’t kidding. Usability is still an issue and even though they have been around for more then 20 years, they are still difficult to set up and use. To simplify this process, many VPN providers now provide their own Apps to make setup and use easier. Tunnelbear, a leading provider from Canada, developed their own VPN Apps for iOS, Android, desktop and even a browser extension, replacing abstract technical details with a clear, clean, and may I say cute, interface.
Recently Opera added a free, built-in unlimited VPN to their browser and you don’t even have to sign up. The downside? Well, it only works within Opera’s browser itself, leaving the rest of your online activities completely out in the open. Similarly, according to an unverified source, Google too is contemplating to integrate a VPN into their Chrome browser.
With VPNs being integrated in more and more products, I think the adoption of this technology will increase, and with increased adoption we will likely see VPNs becoming easier to use. One day VPNs will no longer be sitting only in the toolboxes of hackers, but people everywhere will flip them on at their convenience and thereby flipping oppressive governments, nosy ISPs and data gobbling corporations the finger.
What do you think why VPNs haven’t gone mainstream? We’d love to know! Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Image courtesy of Karl Sinfield