Private Internet Access VPN review
Private Internet Access (PIA) is a VPN service that charges $40/year with the promise of giving you anonymity on the internet.
What happens is that your ISP’s IP address gets replaced by a randomly (or maybe not-so-randomly) assigned PIA IP address when you log into their VPN. However, if you are paying by credit card, PIA knows your name, and even if you are paying more anonymously such as through bitcoin or gift card, they still would know what IP address you are logging in from which can then be traced back to you, so you still have to trust that they are not keeping any logs of IP assignments, which they say they aren’t doing.
Anonymous web surfing would provide the biggest benefit to people doing illegal things on the internet, such as using the dark web, or using torrent sites to download movies, TV shows, music, and other good stuff that you’re not supposed to be downloading. Of course I’m not doing any of those illegal things and you shouldn’t either, because it’s illegal.
Even if you are not doing anything illegal, but are paranoid about the fact that your ISP plus many other internet companies (such as Google) can figure out what you are doing on the web, and maybe use that to blackmail you because of your legal but embarrassing porn-viewing habits, or because you are reading “racist” websites, then there would also be a benefit to browsing with a VPN.
Another benefit that even honest people without embarrassing porn-viewing habits can benefit from is the checkbox to turn off advertisements. This type of ad-blocking works at a much deeper level and is not detected by current anti-ad-block detection which is only looking for browser-plugin-based ad blocking. However, the software-based ad blocking is smarter and for example will reformat the page and hide whatever is underneath the ads (which sometimes are alternative static ads); and so far the Brave browser seems to be super-effective at blocking ads so you don’t need this PIA feature if you are using Brave.
Update: As pointed out by a reader, another benefit of a VPN is that it encrypts all internet traffic and makes logging into a public wireless network safer. I have not tried doing this with PIA, however my previous experience using a VPN to access the internal network of my former employer is that the VPN uses too much bandwidth to work well with low-bandwidth public internet access such as the internet on Amtrak trains.
The downsides to using PIA, besides the yearly fee, are:
1. It takes fifteen seconds or so to login, so even though I have it set to run and login automatically, there’s that extra fifteen seconds of waiting, after turning on my computer, before I can surf the web anonymously.
2. It can only make your internet slower (except for ad blocking which would make ad-heavy pages load faster). It is probable that if you have some sort of super-fast internet, you wouldn’t obtain any benefits from the super-fast speed if you are logged into a VPN.
3. Web servers can detect that you are using a VPN. Netflix, for example, blocks you from watching movies if you are logged into a VPN.
4. DNS problems. If you have no idea what a DNS is or how to change your DNS settings, and don’t want to learn, then you should avoid PIA at least. From time to time, while logged into PIA, I encounter websites that won’t load because the DNS is not found, and I need to disconnect from PIA in order to view the website. This is the single biggest annoyance with using PIA.
Setting all of my internet adapters to automatically obtain a DNS server address seems to work OK for me. If you are truly paranoid, you can hardcode the PIA DNS servers (to prevent contact with non-PIA-owned DNS servers which may log your DNS lookups), however when I did that I could no longer use the internet when not connected to PIA, which is obviously a huge downside given that some stuff just doesn’t work when you are connected.
Update: After writing the above, I updated my network adapters with the IP address for Comodo Secure DNS. Then I surfed to some websites I’ve never surfed to before, and it seems to work. I’ll let you know if anything changes or if I continue to have DNS problems. Using Comodo Secure DNS sounds like a good idea even if you aren’t using a VPN. I urge you to change your DNS settings right away.
THE FUTURE OF VPNs
Sounds too good to be true that you can do illegal stuff on the web and hide it from the FBI? I’m sure the government doesn’t like that at all. There already are some countries that block people from using VPNs, so I would not be surprised if companies like PIA are shut down in the future.