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How and why you should use a VPN to protect your data's final mile

Glenn Fleishman | Jan. 19, 2015
Virtual private networks (VPNs for hire) are cheap and very easy to use on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

This led to VPNs for hire, sometimes bundled into subscriptions to hotspot networks, where any individual could gain robust security. These often involved manual, tweaky configuration. You would have to enter a variety of details, and if any of them changed, you'd need to be alerted or check a website, and then reconfigure. It's much easier today, so much so that those of you who thought the complexity was too annoying to manage should revisit.

These sorts of VPNs aren't designed to protect you from government intrusion, malware, or large-scale criminal enterprises that target website vulnerabilities. Rather, they're exclusively meant to secure the final mile: the most vulnerable piece of the path from you to your destination. Instead of terminating their servers inside a corporate firewall, they locate their systems in highly secure data centers. In fact, your path from them to Google, Facebook, and the like is very possibly over Ethernet within the same building or in one close by.

Easy-to-use options

I looked at two popular VPN services that have native OS X and iOS clients, and offer a single subscription to use both platforms: Cloak and TunnelBear. (TunnelBear also supports Windows and Android.) Both work under iOS 7 and 8 and OS X 10.9 and 10.10. TunnelBear reaches back through the mists of time to OS X 10.6.8 as well.

The two services try to remove as much complexity as possible, which means eliminating manual configuration both in iOS and OS X. OS X is simpler, because Apple doesn't restrict access to the network innards required to set things up. In iOS, both companies use profiles, which let them (with your explicit permission) install their configuration details directly. You can then use their software to enable and disable connections, or use the iOS VPN controls in Settings > VPN.

The main difference between the two is that TunnelBear has friendly bear illustrations and animations, while Cloak is a bit more businesslike in appearance, if also friendly. TunnelBear in OS X lets you target specific websites for VPN use and has some privacy features that disable some popular forms of user tracking. Cloak (which Dan Moren reviewed here) lets you pick trusted Wi-Fi networks to bypass enabling a VPN, and opt to automatically connect on all others. The deciding factor might be your particular number of devices, data usage, and interest in bears.

Cloak sells time-limited passes as iOS in-app purchases, and passes and recurring subscriptions from its website. Every account may be used with an unlimited numbers of devices by a single person across iOS and Mac OS X. The fees range from $4 for a week to $100 per year for nonrecurring passes, all with unlimited data. A monthly subscription costs $3 with 5GB of data included, and an unlimited monthly and yearly plan are $10 and $100, respectively. Cloak offers a free 30-day trial.


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