The story of the Prism surveillance program proves that the word 'privacy' is becoming increasingly devoid of meaning when applied to Web-based technologies. And since virtually everything is Web-based nowadays, it looks like you can finally wave farewell to your privacy for she is gone for good. However, even if you can't protect your privacy from NSA, you can still shield it from the watchful eye of other world governments and data-devouring Internet companies. The answer is VPN.
Bad News: There's No Escape
Even if you do not want your government to know what you do on the Web, there is no way you can prevent it from finding it out, especially if it needs that information really badly. Like it or not, legal provisions in most – if not all – Western countries allow security services to request complete disclosure of your personal information from your Internet provider. The most sophisticated encryption tools like the Tor browser do not guarantee you a complete protection either: if the government thinks you are one of the baddies, it will find you and lay hands on all your private data anyway.
The NSA files scandal has shown us all that the Orwellian visions of the future seem to be the likeliest ones. Two documents were leaked into the media by Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, and they revealed that nearly all communiation via electronic devices can be and actually is being intercepted by NSA (National Security Agency, the US cryptologic intelligence service). It means that if the government wants to know something about you, all it it needs to do is tap into the vast NSA data pool and fish out the required information.
Good News: At Least You Can Dodge
While there hardly is any way to escape the attention of the US government, you can still successfully defend your privacy and your freedoms from less powerful structures. Imagine that you're having some kind of Internet censorship in your country, some kind of a Great Firewall, which blocks everything that doesn't comply with the government's views. Imagine that some streaming service won't let you watch the latest episode of your favorite series just because you had the bad luck to be born in a wrong country or visit it on your holiday trip. And now imagine you can show the finger to them all and browse the Web like a free person and not like someone in official custody. Use VPN.
VPN (Virtual Private Network), as follows from its name, is a mechanism allowing for creating a private network across public networks. The classical private network suggests that its nodes are located near each other, ideally at one place, as are most office networks. VPN works a bit differently: the network server can be located in Taiwan or Hong Kong, while you connect to it from Bellevue, NE, or Repton, Derbyshire. From the outside, you are detected as using the network server's IP address and identification data. I think it's safe to say that this allows you to circumvent the censorship and corporate site blocks.
Great News: Here's How to Do It
Okay, the VPN seems to be a great choice for everyone who wants to keep their privacy at least partially intact. The question is now how you can really use the VPN as a regular user who's got no idea about system administration.
The most obvious answers are either to use an online VPN service or to resort to a VPN client. Using a web-based VPN service may prove too risky, especially if you want to use VPN to bypass the government censorship. Besides, online services are alsmost 100% sure to be commercial. So, forget about freebies.
Most software VPN clients, on the contrary, provide VPN connection on a gratis basis with an Premium upgrade opportunity. What's even more important, all of them are designed to be idiot-proof, so the user only has to press the 'Connect me to VPN' (or something else in that vein) button. The major problem with these VPN clients is that there are lots of them on the market, some being nothing but badly disguised malware or bloatware. After a long and perilous journey I was able to find two decent VPN client programs (if you know any other ones, feel free to share in the comments): Hotspot Shield and CyberGhost VPN.
Hotspot Shield is perhaps the better known one of these two. It offers you a virtual connection to remote servers in the UK, the United States, and Australia. Premium subscription is available at $29.95 per year and gives you access to cloud-based malware protection, client service, and support of up to 5 devices. To be honest, nothing you really need. You can stick to the freeware version and rest assured you are not missing some bigger-than-life features. However, you'll have to put up with constant reminders to upgrade to the Elite version each time you connect to your VPN.
CyberGhost VPN Premium comes at a much higher price (€79.99 or around $105.75 USD per year). Currently you can subscribe to one year of Premium service, getting the second year for free, which practically halves the price to about $52.72 (which is still almost twice as high as the price tag for Hotspot Shield). On the other hand, even the basic freeware version allows for much more than its Hotspot Shield counterpart. First, you have the choice between the specific VPN servers you want to connect to instead of merely selecting the country you want the server to be located in. Second, it provides you with Web access to popular US shows, fulfilling one of the most common VPN tasks. The big drawback of CyberChost VPN is that the amount of free traffic is limited to roughly 2 GB, a figure you can't take seriously today.
At any rate, both programs provide you with a unique opportunity to defend yourself from excessive transparency on the Web. Even though they can't protect you from the ubiquitous NSA, they still give you a chance to bypass censorship or corporate restrictions - a small but important victory in the seemingly hopeless war for our privacy.