Author: InvisibleUser Team
Categories: Internet Privacy
This article is a collection of our thoughts on VPNs outside of desktop software. We will share our opinion on whether an expensive VPN router is worth it and offer any real benefits to you. Additionally, we will analyse how VPNs are implemented on iOS and Android and what that means for privacy and security.
We are not going to explain how VPNs work, because we have a separate article for that: “How a VPN can protect your Privacy”.
On mobile, things work a bit differently. You can also use a VPN on iOS and Android. The privacy you get on mobile devices is equal to that on PC and we strongly recommend installing the VPN app of your provider if you have a subscription.
Since around 2012, where Android 4 and iOS 6 were released, these mobile operating systems officially support VPNs. The network will be integrated into the connection management that is handled by the OS itself, rather than only by the app. In effect, this means that the VPN connection is used for all data transfer over the internet. That is somewhat similar to some VPNs on PC, which often install a driver for a virtual network adapter that handles the VPN. A common example is the TAP network adapter from OpenVPN.
Most VPN providers also have their own mobile app that sets up the VPN connection automatically for you. You just start the app, choose “Connect” and the VPN app changes all the necessary settings for you.
We will now go into a bit more detail on what makes VPNs so secure on the mobile platform: Both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating system provide APIs to achieve this. Android has a built-in PPTP and L2TP/IPSec client (source), so app developers can access it with their software. It offers many useful features, like “always on” VPNs.
iOS has the “Personal VPN”, which is part of their NetworkExtension framework. It allows developers to configure a VPN that uses one of the built-in VPN protocols of iOS (IKEv2 and IPsec). With Apple’s Packet Tunnel Provider and App Proxy Provider, developers can implement a custom protocol. They can modify the existing protocols or use their own.
With most other anonymisation techniques on mobile, you are limited to a web browser. All other apps still use you real IP address. The great thing about VPNs on mobile is that they are not only used for your web browser app. Instead, they secure internet communication across all applications that use the network. This can be very important, since you probably want your other favourite apps to be protected. Think of instant messaging, YouTube and Netflix streaming, as well as social media apps.
That is why we recommend to use a VPN on mobile. VPNs are all in all not perfect, but on mobile they are definitely your best option and better than no protection at all. We recommend ProtonVPN Free for mobile, just like we did for PC. It is really completely free and quite secure. For some premium features like P2P traffic (e.g. BitTorrent) and higher speed, you can get a subscription for 4$/month. We do not have any affiliations with ProtonVPN, it is just the only one that offers a VPN without data limit and ads for free. Please choose another one if you find a better provider we are not aware of at the time of writing this.
There are also physical devices called VPN routers or VPN firewalls that offer a VPN connection. They look like a normal router, but have VPN software installed. For larger networks, a VPN router is a server with a specialised Linux distro like OpenWrt, DD-WRT or Tomato.
If your only connection to the internet goes through a VPN router, DNS leaks are impossible. These devices are mainly interesting to companies, since a VPN router enables them to connect many devices to the internet in a secure way.
While a VPN router is definitely the safest way to access the internet through a VPN, we think that they are not worth buying. If privacy and anonymity are of utmost importance, you should use more advanced and specialised anonymisation techniques, not a VPN.
Now, are VPN routers worth it? We do not see any reason to recommend buying such a device, since most VPN programs on desktopn and mobile offer a kill switch and an “always on” feature to protect you if you lose connection to the VPN. There are no major privacy improvements. You will also need a subscription that is compatible with your router and these are often more expensive than a normal one.
Some VPN routers are notoriously hard to set up. Misconfiguration of minor details can create serious security issues in your network. For this reason, we actually advise against them. Our motto is: “Privacy has to be simple!” We cannot encourage people to use a technology that is hard to configure and may put you at risks if you make mistakes.
The only real use of VPN routers we can think of is unlocking Netflix content from other countries on your Wi-Fi connected smartTV. 😎 😈