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A VPN provides a great many privacy protections that we think everyone should take advantage of. This is especially true in Australia where a 2017 report found that in the previous 12 months, cybercrime rates had increased by 15% to 47,000 incidents. However, within the specific context of Australia’s 2015 data retention law, they won’t do much good.
HTTPS is a powerful tool that everyone should use because it helps keep sensitive browsing private at no extra cost to the people using it. But like most security standards, it has its own problems too. That little lock icon in your browser bar, which indicates the HTTPS connection, relies on a certificate “signed” by a recognized authority. But there are hundreds of such authorities, and as the EFF says, “the security of HTTPS is only as strong as the practices of the least trustworthy/competent CA [certificate authorities].” Plus, there have been plenty of news stories covering minor and even major vulnerabilities in the system. Some security professionals have worried about those least-competent authorities, spurring groups to improve on the certificate standards and prompting browsers to add warnings when you come across certificates and sites that don’t withstand scrutiny. So HTTPS is good—but like anything, it isn’t perfect.
The heart of the security a VPN provides is its encryption keys—the unique secret that all your VPN devices share. If the keys are too short, VPN data is susceptible to brute-force cracking. You can often choose the key length to use in your VPN implementation. The longer you make keys, the harder they are to break, but the trade-off is that longer keys also require more processor power for encryption and might slow packet throughput. The minimum recommended key length now is 64 bits (128 bits, if possible) for the symmetric ciphers that encrypt the data and 2048 bits for public key cryptography such as RSA. Modern desktop computers can often crack 40-bit and shorter keys, such as those that DES uses.
This could be bad. I'm not terribly concerned if Comcast discovers my secret passion for muscle cars and I get more ads for car customizing kits. It might be annoying, but I'm not doing anything I really want to hide. Where the problem could occur is if ISPs start inserting their own ads in place of ads by, say, ZDNet. That could cut off the revenue that keeps websites alive, and that could have very serious repercussions.
The only downsides to Private Internet Access are that you can't select your own username — you've got to stick with an assigned random ID — and that you've occasionally got to reinstall a balky driver in Windows. (There's a button to do this.) Selecting Private Internet Access as our VPN service of choice was almost a no-brainer, but because it's based in the U.S., anyone wary of the FBI may want to consider another service.
For example, when your computer is connected to a VPN, the computer acts as if it's also on the same network as the VPN. All of your online traffic is transferred over a secure connection to the VPN. The computer will then behave as if it's on that network, allowing you to securely gain access to local network resources. Regardless of your location, you'll be given permission to use the internet as if you were present at the VPN's location. This can be extremely beneficial for individuals using a public Wi-Fi.
HotSpot Shield is a product that has had some ups and downs in terms of our editorial coverage. Back in 2016, they picked up some very positive coverage based on founder David Gorodyansky comments about protecting user privacy. Then, in 2017, a privacy group accused the company of spying on user traffic, an accusation the company flatly denies. Finally, just this year, ZDNet uncovered a flaw in the company's software that exposed users. Fortunately, that was fixed immediately.