vpn alternatives

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are one of the most common online security tools, used to hide a user’s Internet Protocol (IP) address or geographic location. Most VPNs create an encrypted tunnel connection using a different IP address generated by the VPN server. This makes it difficult for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to identify a user and block them.

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During a selective blackout or partial shutdown of the Internet, a government can slow down or shut down a pool of IP addresses in a particular location or country. Services like Express VPN, Tunnelbear or Outline VPN allow users to access the Internet at such times.

Mandla Tshuma, a journalist from Zimbabwe, says that she used a VPN to access the internet during the social media shutdown in January this year. “The person you’re communicating with also needs to have a VPN installed on their phone,” she says. “If not, communication is not possible.”

Investigating became difficult for journalists like Tshuma, as most websites and online publications were inaccessible. Therefore, VPNs became the keys to access basic Internet resources.

However, they are not necessarily the perfect tool for every occasion. Sean Ndlovu, a digital security specialist, points out that there have been cases where people discovered that the VPNs they downloaded were run by governments.

“When using circumvention tools, make sure they are trusted and verified by the community,” he says, though that’s easier said than done.

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There are other alternative tools that can be used to bypass the partial shutdown of the Internet. These are web browsers and operating systems, or combinations between VPNs and other technologies.

Below is a list of alternative tools that can be used to help journalists access the Internet and continue doing their jobs.

Smart DNS

In the event that specific social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked, a Smart DNS (Domain Name Server) can hide your location, allowing you to access restricted websites. Smart DNS redirects a request through proxy servers located in other countries where the sites work.

The great advantage of a Smart DNS is that it only needs to redirect your location information through a different network, instead of routing all your web traffic – a feature in common with VPNs. This means that Internet speeds when using Smart DNS are typically higher.

One downside is that a Smart DNS doesn’t always encrypt your information like a VPN, putting your information and privacy at risk. It also doesn’t change your IP address. While this improves speed, anyone with your network details can still track your activity.

An example of Smart DNS is Getflix, but there are more options.

Lantern

Lantern is open source software that bypasses Internet censorship by using peer-to-peer connections. The software, which claims to be faster than a VPN, kicks in when users try to access a blocked website, redirecting them through Lantern or volunteer servers.

Lantern, created in the United States, became popular in countries that have censorship and restrictions on the Internet, such as China.

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Lantern, however, has some serious shortcomings, and should not be relied upon to protect anonymity or privacy. In accordance with its Privacy Policy, Lantern collects a great deal of information about your background and browsing behaviors.

Psiphon

Psiphon is a circumvention system that uses a combination of secure communication and obfuscation technologies, including VPN, Secure Shell (SSH), and HTTP Proxy. This means that if a VPN does not work (it is the first circumvention technique), it will use other technologies to circumvent censorship. One of the main attractions of Psiphon is its proxy servers that provide additional layers of privacy. This has made it popular, especially in countries with high levels of censorship such as China, Turkey, and Iran.

The downside of these proxy servers is that their encryption is limited to browser traffic, and Psiphon does not increase online privacy in your other applications. Psiphon collects some data from its users, as can be read in its transparent Privacy Policy.

Tor

Tor not only protects people’s identities, but also allows them to bypass Internet and social media blockages. Instead of connecting directly to a website, it bounces between multiple nodes or computers on the Tor network, making your communications difficult to trace.

Operating systems

There are computer and mobile operating systems that also allow you to use the Internet by incorporating various functions. For example, Tails forces incoming and outgoing connections to go through Tor. Tails also encrypts files and emails, and won’t leave any traces on the computer you’re using, unless you want it to. Tor has its limitations, such as being slow and unsuitable for downloading and streaming media, but Tails users have no choice but to go through Tor.

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Other examples of secure operating systems are Whonix and Qubes.

Mobile apps

Most VPNs also offer mobile apps that allow anonymity and bypass censorship. There are applications that are used only for mobile devices, such as Orbot, which redirects all traffic through the Tor network. Orfox, another browser for Android phones, does the same thing. Peer-to-peer networks, such as Lantern, are also used in FireChat, an off-grid messaging app that allowed users to communicate via Bluetooth or wireless networks during blackouts in Iran, Iraq, and Hong Kong.

An important aspect to keep in mind about security and privacy tools is that there is no magic one that does everything perfectly. The best solution will depend on the context and conditions of the specific environment.

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“It will very much depend on the region or country where the internet shutdown occurs,” says Access Now’s Berhan Taye. “Internet infrastructure varies from country to country, as do the technical mechanisms used to implement the partial shutdown of the web.”

VPNs are not perfect. We give you some alternatives

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