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Always-on VPN on Your Phone

3 min read

We often hear stories of harmful last-mile content tampering, from YouTube video downgrading to JavaScript-injected advertisement. This prompted me to run an experiment of always-on VPN on my phone (Nexus 5X running Android 6). Surprisingly, I come to the conclusion that it is definitely feasible to do so without affecting the battery life. Even if you are not a road warrior, it is still good to give it a try and see how it goes.

ptThere are many ways to set up VPN, it varies from doing everything yourself to just using a commercial service. For Android or iOS devices, there exist numerous popular choices for a good VPN service. Comparing different VPN services is beyond the scope of this blog post, feel free to check out the popular ones such as Vypr, Express, Pure, and many more. One thing that I discovered while doing this exercise was that there is no truly “the best VPN” as the service you choose will depend on the trade-offs you are willing to make.

One service that I liked a lot and thus I ran it for a while for this experiment is Private Tunnel (works well for both Android and iOS). It is developed and offered by OpenVPN Technologies, the folks behind the OpenVPN project. Unsurprisingly of course, it uses OpenVPN under the hood. What makes Private Tunnel very attractive to me is the pricing model. Unlike other services that use the usual monthly subscription model, Private Tunnel usage is based on volume. This is typically known as pay-as-you-go, e.g. $20 gives you access to 100 GB traffic. Since I do not use my phone for high-bandwidth activities (such as media streaming), it is going to take me forever to hit that 100 GB quota. For all intents and purposes, it is very affordable.

One does not need to have any technical expertise on VPN or OpenVPN to use Private Tunnel.

The app itself is almost trivial: launch and press the Connect button. It could not be simpler than that. The only drawback is the lack of automatic reconnect. If your WiFi is flaky or your 3G/4G/LTE is spotty, occasionally you will be in a state of not using the tunneled connection. In a way, this is a good thing because it trains you to watch for the lock symbol on the status bar, hence building your natural sense of security.

There are advantages and disadvantages of using VPN. If you follow the school of thought of using VPN continuously, at least now you would be able to do it even as you consume the Internet from your wonderful smartphone.

At the next installment, we will take a look at some easy steps to set up an OpenVPN server manually and use OpenVPN client from your phone. Update: The follow-up article is now published: OpenVPN Server on Affordable Linux Machine.

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