Hi Dave. I want to visit and add content to some Web sites without being tracked by my Internet Service Provider. Yes, they’re a bit sketchy. What’s the most secure way to visit a Web site from my computer so my ISP can’t track me?
While there are a lot of questionable Web sites online, ranging from downright alarming ones on the “dark web” to those that are just a bit more sketchy, there are also other sites where you might want to visit and interact without being logged too. If you live in a country that has a national firewall like China or Iran, visiting a Web site from a prohibited political organization could get you in hot water. Or it might be more benign; you’re a Linux fan and like to download distributions through the BitTorrent network, but your ISP assumes all Torrent activity is theft.
There are a number of different solutions and one of the best might be to learn more about the so-called Onion Network, most commonly utilized through the Onion-based, privacy-centric Tor browser. Available for Mac and Windows (along with a lot of other platforms) it’s one of the most common ways that people circumvent national firewalls and has worked flawlessly for many years.
Another common approach, one that’s easier since it adds a layer to your network connection, but allows you to otherwise utilize all your regular apps and programs, is to turn on a Virtual Private Network. VPNs establish an encrypted network connection to one of their central servers, then all of your queries are relayed to that system. It can slow down your connection a bit, but the best VPN systems are barely noticeable and many people (myself included) use them as a matter of habit on public WiFi networks like Starbucks.
This leads to the question of which VPN you should get, and I’ve written about that extensively – What’s The Best VPN Today? – but to summarize, don’t rely on a free VPN (they have a bad habit of cheating and selling your usage data) but pay for one of the top solutions. I’ve personally used both ExpressVPN and NordVPN and both have almost no performance penalty and have worked very well over long periods of time.
CONNECTING SECURELY WITH NORDVPN
To demonstrate how easy it all is when I have NordVPN running, let me show you how I enable the VPN layer for privacy and security protection. Then I’ll show you a couple of cool additional NordVPN features you’ll like even more…
NordVPN has a sort of broken crescent moon icon, which is empty if you’re not running the VPN and filled in if you have it running and protecting you. On a Mac it shows up on the menubar, on a Windows computer it’ll be on the Taskbar. A click reveals its basic layout and functionality:
Because you can utilize a VPN server anywhere in the world, I find that it’s fun to connect to one overseas then go to sites like Google News and see how it changes based on its (now incorrect) assumption of your geographic location. My recent VPN connections have been in the United States and United Kingdom, as shown. But you can connect to any nation that’s on the list if you prefer, and there’s quite a list.
What’s not obvious is that if you move the cursor to the right of a given nation you’ll find a hidden “•••” button:
Click on that “•••” button and another menu appears:
If you are finding that the default connection to a country isn’t working for you, this is how you can change to another server. Notice that NordVPN offers a choice of 1,700 servers in the United States! Definitely handy to have it pick one randomly.
Tip: Don’t, however, be fooled into thinking that the closest city will have the least latency or delay in your network traffic. Because of the complex topology of the Internet, a VPN server off a major national hub like Dallas might be faster than Charlotte, even if you’re in Charlotte! It’s easier just to pick big cities if you want to choose by location.
Once you’re connected, the icon will change and the top of the menu will show that change:
Easy enough. Click “Disconnect” when you’re done or are on a secure network.
ADDITIONAL LAYERS OF SECURITY ON A VPN
Once you’ve mastered the VPN keep in mind that you can utilize other tools with it. For example, the InPrivate Window or Incognito mode in your browser will help you avoid leaving a breadcrumb trail of log entries on your local computer, if desired.
What’s cool is that you can also run double VPNs to have your network connections bounce all over the place before being sent to the server in question. Rather something out of a Hollywood action thriller, but in NordVPN you can simply choose “Double VPN” and choose which nation should be your primary entry point:
If you’re curious, NordVPN describes this feature as “an advanced VPN security feature that routes your traffic through two VPN servers instead of one, encrypting your data twice… with Double VPN, your online activity hides behind two servers instead of one, which is known as VPN server chaining.”
Still not enough? NordVPN also offers Onion Over VPN, though it has far fewer options:
Run Tor over a VPN and you’ll accomplish the same, if you want. Realistically, you’ll probably never need Onion over VPN or Double VPN, but a single VPN? That’s just a smart move any time you’re on a public Internet connection or just don’t want the ISP to be logging and analyzing your activity. Now, use this information wisely.
Pro Tip: I’ve been writing about Mac and Google utilities for years and years. While you’re visiting, please consider visiting both my extensive MacOS Help Library and my Computer Basics Library too for lots of helpful tutorials and how-to articles. Thanks!