In recent years VPNs (virtual private network) have exploded in popularity. Even people who have no qualms about internet security, privacy, or anonymity have heard of them. Mostly thanks to the ubiquity of advertisements and influencer sponsorships.
Yet, the technology isn’t new. VPN solutions have been used by businesses to provide secure remote access to the internal network and its resources for ages. Due to some VPN security risks, however, a portion have moved on to other technologies such as zero trust network access.
While VPNs remain a perfectly good remote access solution for many businesses and regular users, there are more options than that. If privileged access management isn’t much of a concern, VPN alternatives will, in many cases, be simply better.
VPN Pros and Cons
While VPN companies will always continue to claim that their remote access solution is the one-stop-shop for solving security risks, it’s not all that simple. They do solve some security risks well, some partly, and some new ones become apparent.
Most VPNs nowadays provide an encrypted connection to their servers. In simple terms, that means the traffic moving between your and their devices cannot be understood by a third party. Even if traffic could be monitored, they would need to cryptographically decipher it, which is nearly impossible in practice.
As such, they solve an important privacy issue, especially where being tracked by third parties is a real threat. It’s a great solution for those who don’t want to give ISPs or other parties unrestricted access to data.
Additionally, VPNs provide secure access to content, which is regularly unavailable. They have been incredibly useful for people in countries where some websites have been restricted due to geographical restrictions or other policies.
There is a drawback, however, that if secure communication is required, both parties have to be connected to VPNs. However, it is a rather minor issue that is pretty much impossible to solve through VPNs.
Finally, most VPNs are relatively user-friendly, at least those who are not connecting to a corporate network. Every other virtual private network is developed for those who are not highly tech-savvy users. As such, getting access to the entire network is no harder than installing an application.
Unfortunately, VPNs aren’t the best secure connection solution in all cases for a multitude of reasons. Most of these are indirectly tied to the use case.
First, and probably most importantly, virtual private networks are owned by private companies. While that may not matter to businesses who use their own VPN software for secure remote access to their local network infrastructure, it makes a huge difference to regular users. There’s no guarantee that the VPN company isn’t using the data it acquires.
Of course, there are “no logs” policies enacted by many providers. They can even be audited for such claims and gain certifications. Apparently, these auditors aren’t all that lenient on those who claim to not hold logs, but actually do.
Yet, in many cases, it’s simply taking the company for their word and in some cases that may turn out to be a mistake. VPN companies have leaked data before. It even turned out that a lot of data that wasn’t necessary for regular operations had been collected.
Even so, all of the policies and promises go out the window if you decide to use a free VPN. These providers have to earn money to keep the servers going somehow and that usually happens through data collection. Thus, if you are going to use a VPN, it has to be a paid one, which can be considered a drawback as well.
Additionally, the best VPN alternatives in many cases will be a little faster. While the differences may be negligible to regular users, those attempting to do traffic-intensive tasks (such as web scraping) are better off finding a VPN alternative.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the supposed extra security provided by VPNs is largely overblown. It does add an encrypted tunnel to the entire process. For most people, however, encrypted connections have fairly little utility.
Encryption is useful in two major cases – to avoid ISPs noticing your browsing history and to avoid leaking sensitive data through unsecured networks in public places. For many people, these may seem irrelevant or complete luxuries.
In fact, malware and phishing attacks are likely inordinately greater threats to security than anything to do with non-encrypted connections. Unfortunately, VPNs provide absolutely no protection against malware or phishing attacks (unless they have built-in malware detection features).
Finally, VPN use may be entirely illegal or highly restricted in some countries. While many people use it to bypass geographical or political restrictions, sometimes that goes against the laws of the country. Getting into trouble due to VPN use is definitely not worth it.
There are plenty of great options for anyone looking for a VPN alternative to choose from. As with VPNs, however, they also come with some drawbacks. Yet, it’s always worth keeping in mind that other encrypted connection options exist.
One of the most well-known and established security solutions. It’s also one of the best for pure privacy and anonymity online. They use a proprietary encryption solution called “onion routing”.
In simple terms, onion routing is a chain of connected volunteer-based computers that only can decrypt a part of the previous request. For example, a user connects through Tor and tries to connect to a website. There are 4 nodes in the chain. The second can only decrypt the source and destination of the request. So can the third and the fourth.
As a result, even with extensive tracking, no node can grant access to full information about the request at any moment. That significantly reduces potential security risks and privacy concerns. While it’s still possible to track the user, it takes entire security agencies ages to get a grip of them.
Unfortunately, Tor comes with a large drawback and that is speed. Since all of the computers connected to the Onion local network are volunteers scattered around the world, the connections are painfully slow. It might take several minutes for a simple website to load.
In summary, Tor only works well for those who really want to maximize their privacy and security online and don’t care much about speed. If you are looking for something that doesn’t impact performance, you’ll have to look for another VPN alternative.
Lantern is essentially a volunteer-based internet censorship and geolocation circumvention tool. Essentially, it connects users to a large network of Lantern participants. These connections are used to avoid geo-restricted content and censorship.
There are both free and paid versions of the software. The latter provides slightly better connection speeds, unlimited data and increased number of devices allowed. Unfortunately, the free version is throttled.
Lanter is great at its main goal – accessing restricted content. They maintain a high speed of connection by automatically picking the closest and best performing devices. All in all, it works like a charm.
There are, however, concerns about privacy. While they do encrypt traffic, they explicitly state in their FAQ that it’s not an anonymity tool. Their encryption isn’t all that fancy, though, as it doesn’t protect from WebRTC leaks (an exploit that lets others see your real IP address).
Finally, the entire project, at least originally, was funded by the US Department of State. Government funding isn’t always cause for concern, however, it might raise an eyebrow when we consider that Lantern has been promoted as a VPN alternative.
Proxies are another VPN alternative that is extremely powerful. Proper use of proxies can bring the speeds of Lantern and the security of Tor without any of the sacrifices.
The underlying technology of both VPNs and proxies is essentially identical. Both use intermediary servers that route traffic. Proxies do, however, have a lot more flexibility as there are numerous types, each of which can be used for a different purpose.
There are two main categories of proxies – datacenter and residential. The former are created by servers in data centers. They are fast, reliable, and cheap. The latter are IP addresses assigned by ISPs to household devices. They grant greater anonymity and better location coverage.
Since most of them have HTTPS protocols enabled, they encrypt traffic in a similar fashion to VPNs. As such, most of the security benefits already exist. Additionally, they can offer much greater speeds or much greater anonymity.
Proxies have one primary drawback, unfortunately. They are mostly intended for business use such as web scraping. Businesses generally have a team of developers, which means there’s little reason to invest in user-friendly approaches.
As a result, proxies require some technical expertise to properly implement. Minor coding experience might even be necessary. Luckily, most providers have created extensive documentation that is quite easy to read and understand, making the process more streamlined.
Can change IP address on every request
Great at data collection
Great for personal use
Proxies will be the primary choice for those looking for VPN alternatives. They can bring in almost all of the benefits of a VPN and more. They do, however, require some tinkering, experience, and knowledge. Yet, with the proper setup, they’ll likely beat VPNs at pretty much everything.
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