The Nerd Side Of Life

VPN Alternatives and Why to Consider Them

One of the most common online security tools, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have become pervasive in recent times as individuals and businesses work to ensure their cybersecurity. 

As technology advances, however, new vulnerabilities are exposed, leading to exploitation by hackers, followed by new developments in cybersecurity by experts. 

The VPN Dilemma

VPNs have been around for a long time. Designed initially several decades ago to increase the reach of corporate data networks beyond their limits, virtual private networks are basically an encrypted tunnel through the public internet. 

Applied to hide a user’s geographic location and/or internet protocol (IP), VPNs are intended to protect the identity and information of a user by disguising them to internet service providers (ISPs).

The limitations of VPNs, however, have increasingly come to light as the internet continues to evolve. What was once a useful resource for network connectivity, now is nearly obsolete, as VPNs open the door to new security threats and may not even live up to their promise of hiding a user’s connection. 

VPN Security Risks

VPNs have had a good run but due to the ever-changing nature of the internet and increasing cybersecurity threats we face, their utility may have run out. The complexity of VPNs, their security shortcomings, and the false sense of security they instil in users, continue to confound IT departments and exacerbate existing network security issues.

Here are some of the most common security risks associated with VPNs:

  • Unrestricted network access
  • Malware
  • An unsecured endpoint
  • Foreign privacy laws

While this might all be panic-inducing for VPN-users, the good news is that there are viable alternatives to traditional VPNs, some of which combine with VPNs to allow further anonymity online.

#1. Operating Systems

Tails, Whonix, and Qubes are great examples of specially-designed (and portable) computer and mobile operating systems that actually circumvent the internet, providing users with protection against surveillance and censorship.

Secure operating systems like Tails, funnel all web traffic through Tor, the onion router, protecting users’ privacy by blocking trackers and resisting fingerprinting, while at the same time, encrypting files and email messages, leaving no trace on the computer upon shutdown.

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#2. Smart DNS (Domain Name Server)

A smart DNS is a viable alternative to a VPN in that it essentially does the same thing as a VPN but without the slowed connection speed. A smart DNS reroutes all requests through a proxy server, disguising your location and allowing you to access restricted or blocked websites. 

The main benefit of using a smart DNS is to maintain a solid network speed but you’ll still face the same privacy concerns that you’d find using traditional VPNs, such as unencrypted information and an exposed IP address. 

#3. VPN Combos

Despite what it may sound like, VPNs still do have their uses, especially when combined with other software and technology to create an even stronger barrier of protection online. Since VPNs alone provide hardly any anonymity, VPN technology combined with other methods of masking, such as daisy-chaining, isolation, routers, or amnesia can provide a safe space for surfing online.

#4. Mobile Apps

While many VPNs offer mobile apps that allow mobile users to maintain anonymity, there are also mobile-only applications that redirect all traffic through a relay of networks to enable anonymous communication. 

Examples include Orbot and Orfox that utilize open-source software like Tor, which redirects internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer overlay network consisting of more than seven thousand relays, thereby concealing users’ locations and usage from surveillance and traffic analytics. 

These types of mobile-centric apps are becoming far more important, especially since statistics show that in 2020, over half of website traffic worldwide came from mobile devices. 

#5. Zero Trust Networks

The newest kid on the block in terms of cybersecurity is the Zero Trust Network. Here, the basic principle is that no one is trusted. Period. With a zero-trust network, access to every user is restricted, regardless of prior authentication or verification. Each user must go through a new verification process each time the network is accessed. 

Still in their infancy, Zero Trust Networks do not have recognized industry-wide standards at the moment, although some initiatives have been put forward to define the best procedures and protocols for this new network architecture. Despite their youth, zero trust networks have shown amazing results with higher-quality video conferencing and more responsive web applications. 

The Right Tool for the Job

While there are countless VPNs out there and many alternatives too, unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to every cybersecurity problem. The best tool for the job will depend on the business, the environment, and the end-goal of the user to be the perfect fit. 

Perhaps in the future, a magical tool will emerge as the ideal means of protecting ourselves online, but for now, the best we can hope for is a variety of options to help us navigate the ever-changing landscape of the internet in the digital age. 

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