Image Credit: kamukamapolly
Image Credit: kamukamapolly
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On February 18, 2016, Ugandans woke up to the unfortunate realization that they had been blocked from accessing major social media platforms following an order from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).

Micro-blogging websites such as facebook and Twitter, as well as Whatsapp were the most affected platforms for most GSM subscribers using MTN, Africell and Airtel internet data. Viber, YouTube, Google plus and a few others were not touched, largely because their usage via mobile phones was not deemed extensive enough to pose any serious risks.

As usual, Ugandans went scouring the internet for potential workarounds, and once the first breakthrough – via VPN – was made, the rest was history. By the end of day 2 of the blockade, VPN software related downloads had soared to over 1.4 million!

For most IT junkies, VPN technology was not exactly something new. They have been using VPNs to remotely access sensitive systems that include mobile, security and financial systems. Others have been surfing anonymously, with the principal aim of bypassing network filters to access websites that are restricted at their respective workplaces.

Financial institutions, security systems and telecommunications firms mainly use VPNs for purposes of availing remote system support and for secure integrations with third-party services as one of their several security precautions.

What is a VPN?
Simply put, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It is essentially a group of discrete computers networked together over a public network – the internet. Basically, it is a seemingly secure network that opens up access possibility to several other networks, some of which would have blocked by the end user’s ISP or workplace local area network (LAN) settings.

Many businesses use VPNs to connect remote data centers, and individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they are not on the same physical network. A VPN also serves as a method for securing and encrypting their communication when they are using an untrusted public network (lifehacker.com).

Your choice of VPN
This will depend on a number of factors. They could range from the purpose for which one needs the VPN, the infrastructure, or the device one intends to use. For most Ugandans affected on 18th, the principle reason everyone wanted a VPN was to access social media, and largely via their handset.

Most of them had no idea about which precautions they needed to have in place. All that mattered was finding a way around the albatross that was the UCC directive. Of course they also needed something they would not have to pay an arm and leg for. So most, if not all opted for the free options or those that attracted a minimum cost.

This automatically limited the number of options they could have used. Many turned to one of TunnelBear, VyprVPN, WiTopia, Cloud VPN, StrongVPN, Tor, Ipredator and proXPN. Most of these are available on Google Playstore (perhaps UCC’s ban would have been more effective if it had been put on Playstore).

While VPNs are largely said to be secure, a critical look reveals some VPNs are more secure than others depending on the different properties each VPN has been set up with. The properties largely have to do with security level implementation (such TLS, SSL, SSH, SSTP and many others)

The Pros
When you use a VPN, your ISP (and the government, in case it’s poking its nose around) will only see the network (VPN IP Address) you are connecting to. They will not be able to tell which websites you are actually visiting. The ability of any third party to intercept your communication stops at the VPN.

The following are some of the core advantages of using a VPN;
1) Unblock websites and bypass network filters. VPNs are great for accessing blocked websites or bypassing Internet filters. This is why there is an increased number of VPN services used in countries where Internet censorship is applied.

2) Online anonymity. Through a VPN you can browse the web in complete anonymity. Compared to hide IP software or web proxies, the advantage of a VPN service is that it allows you to access both web applications and websites in complete anonymity. Browsers like Tor may serve the purpose effectively.

3) Enhanced security. When you connect to the network through a VPN, the data is kept secured and encrypted. In this way the information is away from hackers’ eyes (lifehacker.com). This is largely effective for private corporate companies that usually put a lot of emphasis on security.

4) Remote access and convenience. In case of a company, the great advantage of having a VPN is that the information can be accessed remotely even from home or from any other place. This is one of the ways in which having a VPN can increase productivity within a company as it ensures effective remote support.

5) Masking your physical location. Most VPNs are hosted in different countries that may be seen as traffic sources. It is one of the reasons government agencies have been unable to track and net people it considers security threats, such as social media critics like Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (TVO).

A VPN will turn you into an instant globetrotter, and anyone trying to track your movements will only be left guessing. During the recent elections, people were accessing the supposedly blocked social media from places like Pakistan, Venezuela, Sweden, Nicaragua and the US. Places they have never been to, physically. The folks that reign supreme at UCC were left with enough egg on their faces to feed the proverbial 5,000.

6) Reduced maintenance costs. Once a VPN network is created, the maintenance cost is very low. More than that, if you opt for a service provider, the network setup and surveillance no longer becomes your primary concern.

The Cons
1) The design and security implementation for a virtual private network can be complex.  This means that it requires a professional with a high level of understanding for the best type of VPN configuration and some of the security issues that can occur when using a VPN.

2) Internet trolling and location masking. Depending on which side of the fence you sit, this too may be a disadvantage. A disgruntled former employee can decide to soil a company’s reputation and will not be easily traced.

3) Access to restricted web sites such as pornography, dating and gambling sites as well as social media. In the wake of VPN technology discovery by many a non tech-savvy Ugandan, one social media addict expressed delight at the fact that they could now access pornography at the workplace without interruption from their smart-aleck IT guys.

This could become counter-productive in the long run. The newfound joy of bypassing supposed restrictions may result into reduced workplace productivity. The age-old adage that says forbidden fads are always sweeter suddenly creeps in, and an employee ends up spending more time on restricted sites than they should. This eventually results into wastage of company resources – time, money or otherwise.