October 22, 2020

VPNs: What, Why, How, Etc.

Online censorship and data theft are rampant nowadays. You’re never truly safe regardless of when and where you connect to the internet. It’s essential to have an extra layer of protection called a VPN. With one, you can rest assured that hackers, surveillance systems, and government monitors won’t stand in your way.

You’re probably wondering what a VPN is. We’ve got your back and have created this guide that explains everything you need to know.

What Is A VPN?

A VPN provides a secure connection between your computer, phone, or router and another network using the internet. It does this by routing all of a connected device’s data through a virtual private network.

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Every decent VPN masks your real IP address. In doing so, it allows you to stay hidden from troublemakers who wish to do harm.

It also lets you access content that would otherwise be unavailable in your location. On top of that, a VPN encrypts all the data that passes through a given connection, increasing your level of protection.

Service providers create a VPN by establishing a point-to-point connection via the internet. The said connection mimics your chosen target location. It gives you the same benefits that users from that location have.

What Does VPN Stand For?

VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network“. Sadly, the inventors of the term have been lost to time. What we now know as a VPN was first invented in 1996 when a Microsoft employee began developing the Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol (PPTP).

What Does It Do?

Until recently, VPNs were used exclusively by large businesses. This is because it allowed separate offices of the same business to pair to the same local network, or let employees work off-site while still being connected to company servers.

Many businesses still use VPNs to achieve what’s stated above. However, an ever-increasing number of personal users are adopting VPNs for all kinds of purposes like:

  • Unblocking Geo-Restricted Services

Have you ever tried to watch your favorite movie on Netflix while abroad, only to discover that it’s not available? A VPN can solve your problem by making it look like you’re still connecting to the platform from within your country.

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The same goes for other websites that have geo-restricted services. With the right VPN, you can watch live sporting events, download exclusive games, and access exclusive services.

  • Hiding Your Identity and Location

If you wish to keep your identity secret and not let others find your location, a VPN will surely come in handy. Using it, you’ll get to prevent individuals from knowing who and where you are by making it seem like you’re connecting from elsewhere.

  • Protecting from Government or ISP Monitoring

Even in countries where the internet is not restricted, there are government agencies that track your internet activity. In addition, ISPs (internet service providers) are known to collect personal information without consent.

A VPN can stop the authorities from monitoring what you do online. It can also prevent your ISP from secretly gathering your data. As long as you have it, maintaining absolute online privacy will be an absolute breeze.

  • Doing Prohibited Activities

Our team doesn’t recommend or support VPN usage for anything prohibited. With that being said, you can indeed use a VPN service to stay hidden when visiting harmful websites.

For example, with one, it’ll be possible to browse .onion websites that are prohibited in your country. Moreover, you can also check out legitimate sites banned due to censorship measures in places like China, North Korea, or Iran.

  • Eliminating Bandwidth Throttling

Many ISPs throttle your bandwidth and restrict your internet speeds, especially if you’re using certain websites and services. With a VPN, your ISP won’t be able to tell what pages you’re browsing or services you’re using. As such, it’ll be unable to throttle your connection.

Keep in mind that not all VPNs eliminate bandwidth throttling. Even when they do, they may still slow down your connection. Thus, you shouldn’t get a VPN just to improve your internet speeds.

  • Staying Protected While Using Public Wifi

Public wifi hotspots are places where your internet security could easily be compromised. When connecting to one, it’s a necessity to use a VPN. It will keep you protected by providing you with an encrypted connection that’s safeguarded from watchful eyes.

What Can’t It Do?

There are a lot of misconceptions about VPNs. Contrary to popular belief, they do not provide complete anonymity even when used alongside an antivirus, a reliable firewall, and other security tools.

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After all, giving up personal data to social media and reusing the same passwords on different accounts can still make you fall victim to cybercrimes. 

  • You Still Need an ISP

Some people say that VPN services are alternatives to ISPs. In no way is this true. You’re still going to need a reliable ISP to use your VPN. Your internet speed will still be largely dictated by that ISP.

  • VPNs Don’t Strengthen Passwords

You can’t strengthen your passwords with a VPN. To get the job done, you’ll need a password manager. Many VPN service providers have one that’s built-in to their apps. Others have separate stand-alone password managers that can be downloaded separately. 

  • Zero Virus Protection

While it’s true that a lot of VPNs have ad & malware blockers, they can’t fully protect you from viruses. Because of that, it’s best if you employ an antivirus on top of your VPN to ensure that your device won’t get infected.

Why Use A VPN?

You may still be skeptical. After all, it can be hard to justify the investment you’ll be making when buying a VPN subscription. To make it easier to come up with a decision, here’s a comprehensive list of the reasons why you should use a VPN:

1. Privacy, Security, Anonymity

The main purpose of a VPN is to provide the utmost levels of privacy, security, and anonymity to users. Without doing these things, a service would be utterly useless.

With a VPN, you’ll be able to keep your online affairs private. Hackers and government minders won’t get to track your online activities. All that is thanks to the many security features that are commonly used by VPN service providers. Examples of which include kill switches, robust protocols, ad & malware blockers, and military-grade encryption.

Although a VPN doesn’t guarantee complete online security, it certainly makes it safer for you to browse the internet. Device type doesn’t matter as most VPN developers made sure of all-encompassing compatibility.

2. Streaming

Many VPNs allow their users to access the foreign libraries of streaming websites like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and BBC iPlayer. They do this by replacing your IP address with one of the servers you’re connected to.

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Using the right service, you shall get to drastically increase the amount of content you can watch. Limitations based on your current location will no longer exist.

3. Torrenting

Torrenting can be very dangerous if you do it without a VPN. Unprotected downloading can expose your personal data and IP address to random people all over the world. With the information they have about you, harm could be done.

Besides keeping your info secret, VPNs are also useful for torrenting because they might improve download speeds. How? By eliminating the bandwidth throttling caused by your ISP.

4. Bypass Geo-Blocks and Censorship

VPNs do not just bypass the geoblocks of streaming services. You can also use them to work around the blocks of all kinds of services. Examples include digital distribution services like Steam or Epic Games that release exclusive games in some regions.\

Countries with Heavy Censorship

The internet isn’t the same wherever you go. In countries like China, Turkey, North Korea, and Belarus, it’s heavily censored. You won’t get to access commonly used websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit. Hence, a VPN is a must-have. With it, getting around government restrictions will be an extremely simple process.

5. Save Money

Believe it or not, you can actually use a VPN to save money. 

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It can help you get cheaper flights and hotel rooms when you travel. This is because almost all airlines and hotel operators use dynamic pricing. Thus, they change prices depending on where you’re booking from.

When To Use a VPN

When to use a VPN? It can be used during all kinds of situations. This isn’t surprising since it comes with loads of benefits. Here are some examples of times when you should browse the internet with your VPN activated:

  • When You’re Abroad

Since not all services remain the same in every country they operate in, it’s best to turn your VPN on when you’re abroad. Doing so will let you tap into all your favorite streaming websites, digital distribution services, and social media apps like how you normally would in your country.

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In addition, you’ll probably want to activate your VPN when you're in a country that heavily censors the internet. This is especially true if that country has banned websites like YouTube, Google, and Spotify.

  • When You’re Connected to Public Wifi

As stated earlier, public wifi hotspots are places where your privacy and security can easily be put in jeopardy. Thus, connecting to your VPN is an absolute necessity when you’re paired with one. 

When that’s done, you can rest assured that it’ll be very difficult for anyone to access legitimate information from your device.

  • When You’re a Political Dissident

Many countries are run by oppressive regimes that don’t offer the same protections for press freedom, speech, and expression that Western nations have. Some even resort to extreme measures to silence those they deem as threats to their regimes.

Because of that, it’s necessary for political dissidents from such places to use a VPN. In doing so, they can prevent their governments from monitoring their activities when they go online.

  • When You’re Working Remotely

Large corporations often require their employees to use a VPN to access proprietary company services from home for security reasons. VPNs linked to your office’s server provide access to internal company resources and networks when you’re working from home.

  • When You Just Want Some Privacy

You might just want some privacy during your everyday browsing sessions. To get it, all that’s needed is to turn on your VPN. By doing this simple task, you will prevent yourself from leaving any footprints that your ISP can scoop.

When Not To Use a VPN

With all the benefits of VPN usage, it can be challenging to find a reason not to stay connected to your VPN 24/7. Nevertheless, there are still some situations where it’s best to remain disconnected from your service. Here are a few examples:

  • When VPN Use Is Criminalized

A handful of countries have laws that criminalize the use of VPNs. Due to that, it’s best to refrain from activating your VPN in such areas. After all, it would be better to be without its perks than to pay a hefty fine or go jail for using it.

  • When You Need Fast Internet

VPNs slow down your internet by making your data travel a longer distance.

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With the wrong VPN provider and ISP, your internet connection can be rendered unusable upon turning on your VPN. Because of that, it’s better to disable it if you don’t need a high level of privacy and security but need a blazingly fast connection.

  • When You’re Establishing A Business

Consumer-grade VPNs are easy to purchase, download, install, and use. The same cannot be said for business-oriented services. They’re generally harder to set up because of many technicalities that can be too complicated for average consumers.

Business-grade virtual private networks add a whole new degree of complexity to your overall connection. Moreover, they can also sometimes have an adverse effect on devices that are used with them. 

Even if most VPN providers simplify things for you, you might still need to establish a network management team to handle your businesses’ private connection networks.

  • When You’re Not Confident with Your VPN

Some free VPN services let you use their servers in exchange for your data. They collect and sell it to companies that display targeted advertisements. Often, you are never informed about this. 

For that reason, it is best to refrain from using such services altogether as they do not really completely protect your privacy. In fact, they even breach it to a large extent.

How Does A VPN Work?

It is easy to understand what a VPN is. Unfortunately, figuring out how it works is a lot more complicated. There are lots of technical processes that happen behind the scenes that you are not made aware of. Luckily, we’ve got a simplified explanation that lets you know the entire process of how a VPN functions.

Here’s a step-by-step list of everything that occurs after you connect to a VPN server:

  1. Your VPN service encrypts all your data before sending it to your selected server via a secure connection.
  1. The sent data from your device is decrypted by the receiving server.
  1. Your data is sent by the server to the internet and which will receive a reply that’s meant for you, the user.
  1. Traffic is encrypted once more by the VPN server then relayed back to you.
  1. Your VPN service receives the data and then decrypts it so your computer can understand and utilize it.
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The encryption process makes it next to impossible for hackers and other malicious parties to track and intercept your data. 

Since a secure connection is established, you shall be provided with complete anonymity as all traffic is rerouted through your VPN provider’s server. Because you’re browsing the web using your VPN server’s IP address, your legitimate IP address will be masked.

Are VPNs Legal?

Before choosing what VPN service provider to use, it’s important to know whether VPNs are legal. Fortunately, they are in most countries. Still, you must keep in mind that while they’re permitted to be used, doing any illegal activity with them still has severe implications.

Check out this overview of the legal status of VPNs in countries that are known for heavily censoring the internet:

1. China

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Despite what many people say, VPNs are not entirely illegal in China. Sadly, the sites of most VPN services are blocked in the country, making it impossible to download their apps.

The Chinese government actually hands out licenses to VPN operators. But, it wouldn’t be wise to subscribe to them as they typically don’t allow you to bypass the Great Firewall. Aside from that, they agree to terms and conditions that make them a threat to your privacy.

2. Russia

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Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law that prevents Russian citizens from accessing banned websites. The law explicitly states that anonymizing technologies (VPNs, proxies, etc.) are considered illegal under several circumstances.

3. United Arab Emirates (UAE)

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Using a VPN in the country incurs hefty fines (up to $525,344) but not a prison sentence. This applies to both citizens and foreigners that are working in or visiting the Arab nation. 

The motivation behind the ban are VOIP services, that undercut the profits of telcos. To support the local telecommunication companies, the government undertook this rather drastic step.

4. Turkey

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The Turkish government hasn’t officially made VPNs illegal to use in the country. However, to curb dissidents active on social media, it has banned many websites, including those that offer VPN services.

5. Iran

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Iranian law states that it’s legal to use VPNs in the country. Unfortunately, you may only choose from services that are licensed by the government. If anything, this defeats the purpose of having a VPN in the first place.

6. Belarus

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Belarus is often referred to as Europe's last dictatorship. It is presently run by an oppressive regime that oppresses freedom of speech, among other things. As such, it should not be surprising that VPNs are banned in the country.

7. Oman

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Oman is ruled by a monarchy that actively censors the media and bans services like VPNs and Tor. Due to that, it’s best to download a VPN before heading over to the country.

8. Iraq

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Like its neighbor Iran, Iraq has criminalized VPN usage. It did so to track and stop ISIS. While the intention of the nation’s government is good, its decision to ban VPNs has resulted in the oppression of the internet freedoms of its citizens.

Disclaimer

Please note that our list isn’t a comprehensive one. To know if it’s illegal to use a VPN in your country, it’s best to research local laws. Besides that, it is important to keep in mind that laws constantly change. Hence, it would be a good idea to check your country’s latest regulations.

Are VPNs Safe To Use?

Reputable VPN service providers are safe to use. With them, you will not have to worry about your data being compromised secretly. 

That said, many malicious service providers only wish to gain your information. As a result, you must read up on the VPN you’re planning on subscribing to.

Are VPNs Safe for Online Banking?

Yes. As long as you’re using a trusted VPN, there won't be any issues with banking online. In fact, a lot of experts recommend that you use a VPN whenever you conduct a transaction. By doing so, you add another layer of security, making it harder for hackers to get your banking information.

Intelligence-Sharing Alliances

The international intelligence-sharing alliances of the world are complicated topics that many would rather avoid. Sad to say, it’s a must to discuss them in any conversation about VPNs because they fundamentally change the way many VPN services operate.

Five Eyes Alliance

The Five Eyes Alliance traces its origins back to a Cold War intelligence pact called the UKUSA Alliance. As its name implies, it was initially an intelligence-sharing agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom to decrypt Soviet intelligence.

Later on, the former British colonies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand all joined the alliance. As time passed, the intelligence-sharing agreement between the 5 countries strengthened. It eventually extended its operations to online surveillance.

For most of its existence, the alliance between the 5 nations remained a secret. The public only learned of it back in 2003. Even then, very little was known about the scope of its activities as it tried to stay mysterious to evade the watchful eyes of non-allied countries like China.

More information about the alliance unintentionally came to light when Edward Snowden leaked documents he got when working as an NSA contractor. In these documents, info regarding widespread government surveillance of online citizen activity was exposed.

Nine Eyes Alliance

As time went by, the Five Eyes Alliance began to work alongside France, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Together, they formed the Nine Eyes Alliance, which is roughly an extension of the original alliance with a less intense level of cooperation.

Fourteen Eyes Alliance

One final alliance that we should talk about is the Fourteen Eyes Alliance. It’s an even bigger extension of the Five Eyes Alliance composed of all the Nine Eyes members with the hefty addition of Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden.

Like the other alliances, the goal of the Fourteen Eyes Alliance is to gather information and share it when necessary. However, the level of cooperation between each member of this alliance is not as intense as its counterparts.

Encryption

Encryption scrambles data into unintelligible jargon so no one can understand it unless they’ve got the key for deciphering. That key always comes in pairs and is shared between the beginning and endpoint users.

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When encryption takes place, data gets scrambled into a cipher via an algorithm. Studies have proven that humans can’t crack complex ciphers by themselves. Even with the help of supercomputers, breaking them is very hard. That said, it is still important that you use a sophisticated algorithm to make infiltrating your data next to impossible.

Many VPNs use different types of encryptions. The most famous of which is AES 256-bit. It is military-grade and considered by many to be the most robust form of encryption that normal consumers could get. All good VPN providers use it, making it an industry standard.

Protocols

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A protocol dictates how data gets routed between your device and a VPN server. There are lots of protocols available, each having different specifications along with pros and cons. Here’s a breakdown of each commonly used protocol in today’s market:

  • OpenVPN

True to its name, OpenVPN is an open-source protocol. As such, its users can scan its source code for weaknesses and use it for all kinds of purposes. 

It has become the most commonly used VPN protocol because of its secure nature. Moreover, it’s available on every major platform, making it easy to set up a VPN on all of one’s gadgets.

  • L2TP

L2TP is short for Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol. It’s the official successor of the much older PPTP, first developed by Microsoft in 1996. VPN services that make use of L2TP often bundle it with the security protocol, IPSec. Together, they transform into one of the most secure connections money can buy.

  • IKEv2

Internet Key Exchange version 2 was jointly developed by Microsoft and Cisco. By itself, it’s simply a tunneling protocol that provides a secure key exchange session. Thus, it is often combined with IPSec for additional security.

Although it isn’t as popular as other protocols, IKEv2 is widely used on mobile VPN apps. The reason why is because it’s good at reconnecting when networks get switched, or the internet gets cut.

  • PPTP

Point to Point Tunneling Protocol is the first-ever protocol that was developed. It’s not as secure as other protocols that are newer. Despite that, some services continue to use it because it has proven to be reliable. 

Nevertheless, it’s not recommended that you choose this protocol if others are available as it’s no longer secure. Governments and criminals were able to crack it long ago.

  • SSTP

SSTP or Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol is another well-known protocol that offers a superior level of security. 

The main benefit of using it is that it’s highly integrated with Microsoft operating systems, which are the most popular in the world. Even so, it’s also natively supported by other operating systems such as Linux, Android, iOS, and macOS.

  • WireGuard

WireGuard is the newest protocol in the VPN industry. Like OpenVPN, it’s open-source, making it easy to set up. 

The protocol is one of the fastest available, making it an ideal option for prioritizing speed over anything else. Additionally, it’s also well-suited for mobile devices as it’s adept at reconnecting when networks get cut or switched.

No Logs Policy

VPNs with a no-logs policy do not track, collect, and keep their users’ private data. If anything, they are more secure due to this. With that said, not all VPN providers that have a zero-logs policy adhere to it. Hence, it’s important to check if the service you plan on subscribing to has its policy audited by a third-party.

Kill Switch

Kill switches prevent your VPN from accidentally getting exposed. They work by automatically disconnecting your device from the internet when the VPN you’re using gets compromised in any sort of way. 

Many service providers have included this feature on their apps by default. However, some have failed to innovate and haven’t. Because of that, they’re less safe to use.

Leak Tests

Leaks occur when your VPN fails to secure your private data and exposes it. To avoid this, you should pick a high-ranking service provider as it’s more likely to not be affected by leaks. 

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If you’re curious to see if your VPN is secure, there are many web-based software available like IPLeak.net that test for leaks. Furthermore, some services even have built-in tests into their apps that you may run daily. Needless to say, it wouldn’t be wise to trust these tests as they are not operated by a third-party that’s sole aim is to expose leaks.

Downsides of a VPN

As with everything, using a VPN has its downsides. Thankfully, the benefits that come with them outweighs their costs. Needless to say, it’s essential to consider a few things before deciding to subscribe to a particular service. After all, the worst thing that you can have after buying a VPN for the first time are regrets.

Effect on Speed

The rate at which service providers alter your connection speeds varies greatly. Still, you should know that all VPNs hamper your internet speeds to a certain extent – even though they get you off bandwidth throttling.

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If you wish to get the fastest speeds available, you should choose a VPN service that’s famed for being fast. Besides that, you should also choose a quick protocol like WireGuard.

Some Websites Block VPNs 

Many websites stop you from accessing them if a VPN connection is detected. A prime example is Netflix. With the wrong service, you’ll automatically be shown a screen explaining that it has detected that you’re using an unblocker or proxy.

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You should also remember that sites that would normally be accessible even with a VPN could be blocked due to the censorship measures.. In such cases, your best bet is to try another server or service. 

How to Defeat Blocks?

VPN services defeat website blocks using a plethora of methods. Still, many aren’t capable of working around them. 

As such, you must use a VPN that’s known to be reliable at giving access to sites and services that are not VPN-friendly. The server you connect to should also be considered as even the best VPNs have bad servers that don’t let you access all the web pages you want.

Untrustworthy VPN Providers Have Access to Your Browsing Activity

Many free and some paid VPN services are untrustworthy. 

They store logs and sell them to third-parties with various intentions. While some simply send you targeted advertisements, others infect your computer with malware. Hence, it’s an absolute must to check the reviews of any service you plan to use.

How to Choose a VPN

For first-time users, it can be rather tricky to choose a VPN service. It is because most of them seem not much different from each other. Many service providers boast the same features and policies. On top of that, they also have similar plans.

What Makes for a Good VPN Provider?

There are a few things that make a VPN provider a good one. Here’s a definitive list of everything you should consider: 

  1. Audited no-leaks policy
  2. Modern security features
  3. Fast connection speeds
  4. Large server network
  5. Unlimited simultaneous connections
  6. Superb unblocking capabilities
  7. Flexible planning schemes
  8. Competitive pricing
  9. Money-back guarantee

A service that has all of these is definitely a good one. You’re sure to not have any regrets after buying it. However, in case you still do, you can always get a refund thanks to the money-back guarantee that’s in place.

What Makes for a Bad VPN Provider?

Bad VPN providers have many things in common. More often than not, you can automatically tell if they are not worth buying. Check out the comprehensive list below to know what’s important to look out for when you’re avoiding a lousy VPN:

  1. A history of leaking information
  2. Reports of unsecured servers
  3. Slow connection speeds
  4. Bad compatibility
  5. A small server network
  6. Limited planning schemes
  7. No money-back guarantee

If a service has anything on the list above, it’s best to avoid it. Not doing so could result in your information being leaked, among other things.

How Much Does a VPN Cost?

The cost of VPNs differs significantly from service to service. Some are very cheap, while others come at a hefty price. 

It’s generally good practice to select a more expensive service since it’s more likely to have the latest and best features. Moreover, it also has a better chance of having better customer service and a larger online knowledge base.

Monthly Range

The majority of VPN services charge a monthly fee of $5 to $12. That said, we don’t suggest that you pay by the month as better deals are available if you opt for a yearly plan.

6-Month Range

A few VPN providers have 6-month plans that you can avail of. These plans usually cost between $3 to $9 per month. Note that you’ll have to shell out the full amount to get them.

12-Month Range

Almost all services have a 1-year plan available. Expect to spend $2 to $7 per month and pay for the whole year upfront.

The Future of VPNs

The future of VPNs is definitely a bright one. Despite the widespread implementation of bans across the world, their popularity is rapidly on the rise. Why? More individuals are starting to become aware of the importance of digital security. Moreover, they are beginning to see the many benefits that come with using a good VPN service.

New features and protocols like WireGuard are emerging to increase the level of security that VPN users have. Apart from making VPN services more secure, they also make them run  faster than ever before, paving the way for a seamless experience.

In summary, our team believes that the VPN industry will only grow and get better. It’ll only be a matter of time before everyone has access to better internet security. The days where you’re blocked by websites and government censorship are soon to be over. Hackers and other malicious third-parties are never going to be able to compromise you ever again!

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About the author 

Erwin Caniba

Erwin, our Chief Editor, has an established career in digital marketing. Since 2012, he’s always used a VPN. As such, it came to his mind to share his experience with every VPN that he’s used. And so, VPN Thrive was born.

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