Even in “safety Japan”, before you go to sleep, you make sure your front door is locked, right? But now in the age of COVID-19, when we’re spending way too much time at home and online, what precautions are you taking to secure your data? Without wanting to sound like we’re putting the fear of Jesus into you, there is an array of people and organizations wanting to snoop on your data and to manipulate what you can do online. A VPN can address a lot of these concerns.
What is a VPN and exactly why do I need one?
Think of a virtual private network (VPN) as a protected tunnel through the internet that bypasses most of the snooping and geo-specific restrictions. Without a VPN, a lot of the data and all of the URLs you visit are transparent to all the networks in between—such as to your internet service provider. Not using a VPN is the equivalent of only sending correspondence on postcards that the postman and anyone in between can pick up and read.
So what’s a VPN good for? As mentioned, the top reasons are security and privacy. Also, people use VPNs to bypass country-specific content blocks and restrictions. For example, because of content licensing deals, the content available through streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video is different from country to country, so that show that’s available through Netflix in the US might be missing from the Japan catalog. Additionally, as of this writing, services like Disney+ and HBOnow are still not available in Japan. VPNs can help to get around these blocks, but you should be aware that these streaming networks actively try to counter this, so avoiding the blocks might require regularly switching VPN locations.
Online security and privacy risks in Japan
As with most countries, there are three main groups that are interested in messing with your privacy and security. One is the criminals, another is the government spooks, and the third is commercial enterprises hoovering up personal data (sometimes there are very grey lines between them). Public wifi networks are especially risky with the major risks being having your unencrypted data snooped on (most emails can be viewed by anyone with admin access to the network) and being tricked by a man-in-the-middle attack. What does this mean practically?
It means when you go to login to your internet banking service, that login page might not belong to your bank. Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you’re safe either. Even though ISPs can’t snoop on encrypted web data, they do keep a log of EVERY website and URL that you visit. Packaging up and selling this data is a source of revenue.
Additionally, Japan’s laws against illegal file copying are harsh by any standard. Illegal downloading of movies or games is not just a civil matter, it’s also a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison.
Fixed IP addresses
Another consideration in the time of COVID-19 and working from home, is that some VPN providers can also provide you with a fixed IP address. When you access work-related sites and resources from home, the unique public address allocated to your home network is provided by your internet service provider. Ever logged into a website and got one of those messages “Recent login to your account from Saitama” even though you live in Yokohama? That’s because the service is guessing based on the IP address allocated to you by your ISP or mobile data provider. While this might not matter for playing Animal Crossing, your company might want to restrict who can access resources and services so they don’t get hacked. To do this, they need to “white list” IP addresses, and for this you need a fixed IP address.
Choosing the best VPN
If your main goal is security (as it should be), the best VPN is one that you can trust. Ultimately, the only VPN that you can trust 100% is a VPN that you make yourself. If you have some technical nous, you should consider making your own VPN (see below). However, if you’re one of the other 99%, you have a tougher decision.
Factors to consider might be the reputation of the company running the VPN, speed (overloaded VPNs will let you experience what dial-up internet was like), how long they’ve been doing it, data retention policies (whether they log traffic), the jurisdiction (a VPN in China is probably a bad idea), any optional extras, and lastly the price. Even though the VPN provider might say they don’t log traffic, depending on the jurisdiction, they can be compelled to co-operate with authorities. Look for a 100% no-logging policy and don’t take claims at face value.
Low-cost VPN providers
Due to the nature of the internet (borders are for people not bits), you can choose a provider anywhere in the world. We don’t recommend Japanese VPN providers as we have yet to find a consumer-oriented service with English support.
With a lot of publicity from sponsoring high-profile YouTubers, Nord VPN has got a lot of attention and has become one of the biggest VPN companies in the world. The company is headquartered in Panama, which has no mandatory data retention laws. They also have a product for companies called NordVPN Team.
|Devices:||Simultaneous connections on up to 6 devices|
|Server locations:||Any of 5,400 servers in 59 countries.|
|VPN types||Apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Chrome OS, and Linux (based on OpenVPN and Internet Key Exchange v2/IPsec)|
|Tracking policy:||No logs, audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers|
|Company incorporated in:||Panama|
|Prices & sign-up:||¥390/month (24 months up-front)
¥517/month (paid annually)
¥1,256/month (paid monthly)
Nord VPN Website
CyberGhost reportedly has 7.5 million customers worldwide and is one of the lowest cost providers. The premium plan works out to US$2.75/month when paid annually.
|Devices:||Simultaneous connections on up to 7 devices|
|Server locations:||Any of 6,400 servers in 89 countries.|
|VPN Types||OpenVPN, L2TP-IPsec and PPTP|
|Tracking policy:||No logs, yearly transparency reports|
|Optional extras:||Fixed IP ¥550/mth|
|Company incorporated in:||Romania|
|Prices & sign-up:||¥299/month (24mths up-front)
¥569/month (paid annually)
¥1,425/month (paid monthly)
Pure VPN has one of the biggest networks among VPN providers with more than 2,000+ servers in locations throughout the world. This is handy if you want to check geo-blocked websites from many different countries. The service is as low as US$2.88/month if you pay for 24 months up front.
|Devices:||Max 5 devices at a time|
|Server locations:||More than 2,000 servers in 6 continents.|
|VPN Types||PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, IKEv2, OpenVPN & Stealth, apps for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.|
|Tracking policy:||No logs kept|
|Optional extras:||Family plan with up to 10 simultaneous connections US$1.00/mth extra|
|Company incorporated in:||Hong Kong|
|Prices & sign-up:||US$2.88/month (24 months up-front)
US$4.08/month (paid annually)
US$10.95/month (paid monthly)
Pure VPN Website
HMA (Hide My Ass)
HMA (they changed their name—I guess Hide My Ass wasn’t class enough) claims to have the biggest VPN network in the world with servers in more than 190 countries (there are only 193 member states of the UN).
Pricing is from US$3.99/month when billed for 36 months.
|Devices:||Up to 5 devices simultaneously|
|Server locations:||190+ countries|
|VPN Types||L2TP and PPTP, apps for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.|
|Tracking policy:||No activity logging|
|Company incorporated in:||United Kingdom|
|Prices & sign-up:||US$3.99/month (3 years up-front)
US$4.99/month (24 months up-front)
US$6.99/month (paid annually)
HMA VPN Website
Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access claims to have more than 3,292 servers in 46 countries. They also put their money where there mouth is when it comes to internet privacy by sponsoring the Electronic Freedom Foundation and various free software projects. For that extra bit of anonymity, you can pay using gift cards from Starbucks, Apple, Costco, and Uniqlo.
Their pricing is from ¥312/month when billed annually.
|Devices:||Max 10 devices at a time|
|Server locations:||46 countries|
|VPN Types||PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec|
|Tracking policy:||No logs, yearly transparency reports|
|Company incorporated in:||United Kingdom|
|Prices & sign-up:||¥1,086/month (paid monthly)
¥654/month (paid 6-monthly)
¥312/month (paid annually)
More about Private Internet Access
Free VPN providers
The joke with free VPNs is that they are sponsored by the NSA. While that’s unfair, it does reinforce the idea that the security of the VPN (free ones included) comes down to trust in the people behind it.
Opera Web Browser
Opera touts itself as “the first major browser maker to integrate an unlimited and free VPN”. While you could argue over whether Opera is a major browser maker, having a free and unlimited browser is an undeniably awesome feature. Muddying the waters on this is the acquisition of Opera by a Chinese company with a less-than-stellar reputation.
Sign-up for ProXPN is quick and painless. Once you have an ID and password, you can use them with the client software that you download from the official site. Once started on the MAC, the VPN controller that allows you to switch it on and off resides in the notifications bar at the top right of your screen. On the free plan, you can only connect via the ProXPN server in Florida and the Speedtest.net test results indicated speeds were quite slow.
Apart from the speed, the downside with ProXPN is the constant nagging. Each time you load a new site, you’ll get the ProXPN splash page and an artificial delay before the page starts loading.
|Data traffic:||Unlimited (free version speed limited to 300kbps)|
|VPN Types||OpenVPN (PPTP on paid plans)|
|Tracking policy:||No logs kept|
|Company incorporated in:||Netherlands|
|Website and download:||https://proxpn.com/|
VPNBook doesn’t even have paid accounts—all plans have a $0 price tag with its income coming from donations and the ads on its site. Set-up is not as easy as the others as it doesn’t come with a client—you have to download an OpenVPN config bundle and then run your own OpenVPN client. The username and password for using it are the same for everyone. Although this might sound a little daunting, there is an easy to understand guide on the site. After connecting to a US server, my IP address displayed as Virginia. Despite the slow download speeds, the ping time was reasonable. For UK VPNs, your mileage may vary. The first UK server I tried to connect to failed. The second was so slow I couldn’t even load whatismyip.com I connected to the third server successfully.
|Server locations:||United States, Canada, Germany, Europe|
|VPN Types||PPTP, OpenVPN|
|Tracking policy:||IP Address logged. all connection logs are automatically removed every week.|
|Company incorporated in:||Zurich Switzerland|
|Website and download:||vpnbook.com|
To use the free service, you need to enter your email to receive the PNPP login info (PNPP is a flavor of VPN). As advised on the homepage, you’ll need to check your spam folder—that’s where my email ended up. Your initial information will contain your user ID and password along with some servers that you can connect to. Note that these IP addresses sometimes change, so keep this handy. To find up-to-date IP addresses you will need to log in to the client area on the SecurityKiss website. As with VPNBook, there are detailed instructions for every device you can think of.
At least when I tested it, speed was by far the best of the free VPNs. There were two UK servers—one failed, while I was able to connect to the other. The UK server was definitely faster than the VPNbook server, but not quite as quick as the US one. Also, there was a couple of erroneous results with very, very low download speed—so there might be connection dropouts. The big catch is that it’s limited to 300MB/day. So even though the streaming speed was awesome, the limit means it’s probably not practical for streaming or heavy use.
|Server locations:||UK, US, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands|
|VPN Types||OpenVPN and L2TP/IPsec|
|Tracking policy:||User’s IP address and connection time logged, automatically deleted after 10 days|
|Company incorporated in:||Dublin, Ireland|
|Website and download:||securitykiss.com/|
Like VPNBook, JustFreeVPN is as the name suggests, an only-free VPN provider. No sign-up at all is required with PPTP login information on the home page of the site. At first the speed on the US server seemed pretty good. However, it was the only VPN on which I got a “download error” on speedtest.net. When it eventually ran, the results showed good latency (only 206ms) but low download speeds. Unlike the others, this VPN was checked in the evening rather than during the morning. JustFreeVPN could be a good VPN if you ever find yourself behind the Bamboo Curtain and you need to try a few different VPNs so you can check your Facebook. Although they also have a UK server, I was unable to connect to it.
|Server locations:||UK, US, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, Hong Kong|
|Company incorporated in:||N/A|
|Website and download:||justfreevpn.com|
Making your own VPN
If you can do this, it’s highly recommended. Digital Ocean offers cheap VPS instances for US$5.00/month. Digital Ocean also has an excellent tutorial on setting up your own VPN that I was able to follow.
The speed on speedtest.net on my custom-made VPN through my own server is 60Mbps down and 18Mbps up (my regular wired home connection is 688Mbps down and 274Mbps up).