I just set up a private VPN service here at the mighty Big Medium headquarters. I used Streisand software on a Linode server, and the process was simple and cheap.

Like a lot of folks, I’m unsettled by the increase in data surveillance by companies, governments, and hackers—and by the uncertainty of how and when my data might be used. I frequently use insecure public networks when I’m out and about. And now even home doesn’t feel so secure, now that Congress has confirmed ISPs’ “rights” to listen in and sell customer data without permission.

For all these reasons, it’s past time to improve my data hygiene. A decent VPN is a part of that.[1]

In particular, I decided that setting up my own VPN was the way to go. For about $5/month, I get anonymity and security without the uncertainty of a third-party service’s policies, practices, or bandwidth speed.

I did it with Streisand, a remarkable open-source project to set up and deploy your own VPN server with the minimum possible fuss. “Minimum possible” is a relative term when it comes to deploying servers, but Streisand really feels like a bit of magic. If you know just the basics of getting around the command line on your machine, you should be good to go. Seriously, friends, if I can do it, you can, too.

It’s especially easy if you set up a server account with Linode, DigitalOcean, Amazon EC2, Google, or Rackspace Cloud. In those cases, you type a few commands into the command line and bing bam boom, Streisand deploys and spins up a server instance for you in your account and installs all the software. Remarkably easy.

At the end of the process, you get a neatly formatted html page with connection instructions. The instructions are clear and direct, ready to share with friends and family to get them up and running, too.

It took me about 15 minutes from start to finish. Streisand is also auto-updating, so it takes care of its own security updates. The whole thing is set-it-and-forget-it.

Definitely cannot recommend Streisand enough. It gives you a private service with relatively easy setup at a low cost and with basically zero maintenance.

The software itself is free, but you do have to pay for the server and bandwidth. When you use a VPN, you send all your bandwidth through the server, so the amount you’ll pay per month depends on the amount of data you use. At Linode, for example, $5/month gets you one terabyte of data, $10 gets you two, and so on.

Why not use a VPN service?

Ultimately you’re just shifting your trust from your ISP to a VPN; instead of giving your ISP complete access to your data, you give that access to the VPN service. What they do with it—log it, sell it, hack it—is up to them. Most I’m sure are scrupulous and well-intentioned, but the industry is not well regulated, and policies are often opaque. There’s no Consumer Reports-style ratings for VPNs.

Meanwhile, the bad behavior of a few companies is enough to make me cautious. Some VPNs are outright inept or unscrupulous. Wired reports that nearly 20% of mobile VPNs in the Android Play Store don’t even encrypt traffic—and that’s the whole purpose of these things. And here’s a gross example: a couple years ago VPN provider Hola was caught injecting ads into its users’ browsing experience.

I don’t mean to tar the whole industry with this brush. I hear good things about Tunnelbear, F-Secure Freedome, and Private Internet Access. If you don’t have it in you to set up your own VPN, these may be good options.

But do something. Whether you set up your own VPN with Streisand or you hook up with one of these service providers, it’s time for all of us to be more responsible about our data habits.

  1. If you’re not a familiar with a VPN, it’s a “virtual private network” that creates a secure tunnel to shield your browsing information from your internet service provider and the immediate network. And to the outside world, your traffic looks like it’s coming from wherever your VPN service is setup. (For me, it’s “Hello, Newark, New Jersey!”)  ↩

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