When you use a smartphone (whether in public or not), you’re vulnerable. Your phone is a target for hackers, identity thieves and other entities (think Google, NSA, etc.) who wish to track your location and your online activity.
The best way to protect your personal data and remain anonymous while using a smartphone is by installing and using a VPN service. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it allows you to operate - as the name suggests - an encrypted private network over a public network, e.g. the Internet.
Do I really need a VPN?
In short, the answer is yes. There are just too many vulnerabilities associated with mobile devices, too many easy hacks available. Even if you don’t use your smartphone for online banking or perhaps feel that you have nothing to hide, I doubt you would really want to give easy access to anyone who knows how to hack their way in?
Increasingly, companies like Google and Facebook are collecting, storing and selling personal data while government intelligence agencies do their own collecting, storing and tracking. The once relatively free and open web has become an Orwellian overlord that follows your every move, anticipates your buying and searching habits, monitors your location, communications and contacts 24/7.
And that’s just the guys who do it legally. Incidents of identity theft and other types of cybercrime are increasingly common, and mobile wireless devices such as your smartphone can be easily compromised.
Other benefits of using VPN services include circumventing state-sponsored Internet censorship, accessing blocked media content and having a means to transmit sensitive data with anonymity, such as in the case of journalists protecting sources.
How do VPNs work?
When you connect to the Internet in the normal fashion, your device broadcasts its unique identification data and your location. While online, you’re also vulnerable to having your unencrypted activity intercepted by a third party.
If, instead, you connect to a VPN service, your activity will become encrypted and your location may be disguised. You’ll be communicating through the VPN server, which sends and receives yours and others’ encrypted data over the network while protecting your anonymity.
Since the encrypted data is being sent and received using a single server, it makes it very difficult for a third party to access communications or to track the individual user’s identity and location.
How to choose the right VPN service
There are several considerations involved in choosing the right VPN for your needs.
The first question most people ask, of course, is: “How much does it cost?” And, as usual, the cost is related to performance and features. However, VPNs are relatively inexpensive overall, and even though there are free services available, it’s probably a better idea to go ahead and spend the money on a good service.
What you need is a service that offers speed, well-designed software, a large number of servers and solid customer support.
The free services usually lack in terms of performance and speed, and you’re typically forced to endure advertising in exchange for free anonymity. For some, the free services may work fine, and it’s almost always possible to upgrade if you like the service.
Many VPN services offer free trials, so you can try before you buy. It’s probably a smart move to use a free service at first so you can get an idea of how VPNs work before you decide which product is preferable.
Another consideration is location. Depending on what geographical region you live in, there are usually VPN services available with servers near your location, which can mean faster and better performance. If you want to access blocked content from a particular country, you’ll need to choose a VPN with servers located there.
Which mobile VPN services are best?
There are several VPN mobile apps offering fast, secure and reliable connections. Many of the leading services have maintained a serious commitment to privacy principles and have designed software that works well on mobile devices.
Here’s my ranking of some of the best mobile VPN services on the market:
1) VyprVPN - This mobile VPN app works with iOS and Android devices. The US-based company has its own dedicated data centers, meaning faster speeds, and also offers one of the most sophisticated encryption systems available. There’s also cloud storage available. There’s a three-day free trial available, also. VyprVPN earns the number one position, in my opinion, but some users may be concerned about the fact that they keep data logs for 30 days.
2) ExpressVPN - Running a close second, this mobile VPN app works very well with Android and offers great customer support, fast connections and reliable service overall. The company does not store data logs, so that’s also a plus. The only drawback is it’s slightly higher price compared to some mobile VPNs, but at around $8 per month, it’s still pretty darn cheap.
3) HideMyAss - One of the most popular VPN apps, HideMyAss has a huge number of servers, great performance stats and an easy-to-use service. This UK-based company, does keep partial logs, which may be a concern for those whose anonymity is crucial.
4) NordVPN - Works with iOS, Android and Windows devices. Based in Panama, the company is not required to keep logs. The service offers some user flexibility and customization features and they maintain servers in 20 countries, as well as offering several other connection options, such as Tor-over-VPN.
5) IPVanish - With multiple servers worldwide, great speeds and a competitive price, IPVanish deserves a place in the top five.
VPNs for smartphones continue to evolve, with more and more apps being released that work well on Android devices. Since most of the very best mobile VPNs are available for less than $10 per month, I strongly recommend choosing one of them - the protection is well worth the investment in the first place, and you might as well use a VPN that offers optimal speeds, security and performance.
To use a smartphone without such protection is asking for trouble - $5 or $10 per month is a small price to pay for online security and privacy.