A VPN (Virtual Private Network) lets users send and receive data securely even when using public networks. I couldn’t find a better way of defining it. Google is your friend.
You must have come across a VPN somewhere, or at least needed to use one. With the General Elections fast approaching, if whatever happened to our neighbours in Uganda is anything to go by then you may need one. In that case, what options do you have?
There are several reasons as to why one may require the services of a VPN app.
In my case, the primary reason why I need a VPN app is to be able to stream my music in peace. You know, Spotify makes it so difficult to stream its expansive 30 million+ music catalogue so what do we turn to in order to disguise ourselves as being in Brooklyn, New York, or Tokyo, Japan? VPN apps. VPN apps come in handy when all you want to do is bypass those stupid (yeah I know why they are there but that’s still silly) geographic restrictions.
Others may be wary of their privacy online. Moreso when the government hasn’t been so upfront about our use of public wireless networks.
With the General Elections fast approaching, if whatever happened to our neighbours in Uganda is anything to go by then you may need one. In that case, what options do you have?
1. Tunnel Bear
What can I say?
Tunnel Bear has served me faithfully for a while now. It has stuck by me ever since I severed any ties I had with my previous darling, Hola VPN. That marriage to Hola VPN was terminated the moment I learned of its fishy working mechanism – as a “peer-to-peer VPN” which is to say that other internet users’ traffic gets routed through your own and, to anyone watching, that traffic appears to be coming from your own machine.
Here’s what got me as summed up on Adios Hola:
“Perhaps that doesn’t seem bad to you. However, imagine that somebody uploaded child pornography through your connection, for example. To everybody else, it seems as if it was your computer that did it, and you can’t really prove otherwise.”
Back to Tunnel Bear. It’s a great VPN application. It does just one thing and it does it so well.
Sure, it is structured in such a way that I have to pony up a couple of bucks since it is not in the business of unscrupulously using my data to route other users but I can take that since my primary use of a VPN app is simply to lie to Spotify that I reside in the States and not much else.
However, if you use a VPN app throughout or plan to do so, then Tunnel Bear may not be your number one choice. Unless, of course, you’re interested in paying for more bandwidth, you’ll have to learn to make do with Tunnel Bear’s 0.5GB limit. You can get double that amount at a go by simply spamming your Twitter followers with a shameless promo for Tunnel Bear but…
2. Opera VPN
Opera has done a brilliant job building a VPN service into its desktop browser. I have it always enabled on mine. It’s effortless, after all.
On mobile, one has to install the Opera VPN app, a painless exercise.
Using the app is simple and straight forward. Just hit connect and your location is masked to somewhere halfway around the world and far away from where you really are. Of course, if you’re like me and are obseesed with Donald Trump’s land being your default location then you can swap the automatic location Opera VPN assigns you for your location of choice in the settings menu.
What I really like about Opera VPN is that it lets users specify to have it kick into action after a device restart. This comes in handy to the privacy conscious (which should be all of us, really) since it is very easy to forget that your VPN is automatically disabled the moment your Android device reboots.
Opera VPN also throws in another much-needed feature since you run the risk of ads intruding into your personal space as you navigate the world wide web: Guardian. The Guardian feature, when activated, blocks ad trackers from following you around the interwebs.
3. Flash VPN
This one is even more straightforward. Just hit “Connect”. That’s it! Done. Nothing more, nothing less.
While Flash VPN gets the job done without any fuss, one is likely to be overwhelmed by the ads they have to put up with in a bid to either spoof their location for the sake of misleading online services or getting off the prying eyes of the authorities in their country. A terrible balance.
4 Turbo VPN
It’s simple in design and goes straight to the point with no fancy animations. However, one notices why it’s not my top pick once they open the app. One is greeted by an add and ads dominate the entire app’s operations on a device. Ads even pop up when you’re quitting the VPN app.
5. Hotspot Shield
Hotspot Shield has been around for like forever. It was the very first VPN app I ever used. Back when we had computer programs actually being referred to as programs and not being lumped with the collective term “apps”. On mobile, Hotspot Shield is equally good and gets the work done. The only downside is that it gives users way too many options in the settings that could end up being confusing. Also it is pretty expensive should you want to upgrade to the “Elite” tier. Kshs 1,200 per month is a bit on the higher side if your biggest bother in the free tier is the ads that help keep the app alive.
Killing many birds with one stone using Opera Max
If you are among the many Kenyans who are extremely cautious about the amount of data their devices consume then you may already have a VPN app installed, you just need to turn on the VPN functionality and you’re good to go. I am talking about Opera Max, Opera’s application known mainly for its data management functionality.
Through its Privacy Mode menu, Opera Max users can opt to browse the internet anonymously since Opera has built in the same VPN functions available through the separate discussed above inside its Max app thus helping users accomplish two tasks using just one app.
Harnessing the power of the TOR network using Orbot
Orbot (Play Store link) is not an out and out VPN app but it gets the job done since it has a built-in VPN mode. Orbot is a proxy app that deploys the use of the powerful, trusted and highly recommended Tor network. In fact, if it were not for the fact that it may take the not-so-savvy user a couple of hoops to get started with it since the simple single button switch it presents upon being launched isn’t all that one needs to do, then this would be the only app worth recommending.
The Tor Project describes Orbot as, “an application that allows mobile phone users to access the web, instant messaging and email without being monitored or blocked by their mobile internet service provider.”
Like I noted in late March, the Tor network works by routing online traffic through multiple nodes/relays so as to conceal its origin is mainly accessed through the Tor browser.
I have tried, tested and used lots of VPN apps over the course of my interactions with Android devices over the years. Few are as impressive as Opera and Tunnel Bear and not many would match the efficiency of Flash VPN, despite its many glaring shortcomings. However, there is no shortage of decent VPN apps on the Play Store where you’re bound to be overwhelmed by the options at your disposable. Go with whatever works for you but just bear in mind that security is of utmost importance so make sure you know exactly what the VPN app you’re downloading does with all that data that will be routed through it. You could end up playing into the hands of the people you’re desperately trying to avoid.
Note: the apps highlighted here work on both rooted and non-rooted devices and are free or at least have a free tier.
Header image: SecurityBrief.com.au
There have been some new developments since this article was posted:
1. Turbo VPN was caught spying on its users so you may want to avoid it. Yes, they might fix this now that they have been called out but just don’t take chances with your information.
2. Hotspot Shield, too, has some issues, and this is not the first time. ZDNet has the details. Yikes! Avoid it if you can.
So now that leaves the list with just 3 VPN apps that are unblemished since it was published. I think we can all work with that. Tunnel Bear continues to be a very useful resource. And no, this is not an ad for Tunnel Bear. After what happened to Max, I’d be wary if I was an Opera VPN user. If anything, the early indicators as to what may befall it are not encouraging. Oh, the Chinese!