Here’s a clever security idea that one day everybody will simultaneously claim they invented – connect to the Internet using a VPN. Large companies already use this concept for all sorts of remote access, from laptop users connecting back to the HQ to the home worker doing much the same. But what happens if you aren’t a large company with a VPN server, or just want to connect using an insecure public network?

One answer could be Internet Anonym VPN from German company Steganos, that specialises in coming up with accessible versions of security technologies that would normally be considered too complex for the non-expert. We reviewed their encryption product, Safe, last year, and this particular program has been around for some time in previous versions.

The service has two security elements, either of which could be useful, depending on what it is you’re after. First, as its name implies, Anonym hides what the user is up to, at least as far as the link itself is concerned. No record is kept of which websites are being visited, any uploads or downloads made, and all of the sites visited see the IP address of the Steganos server, rather than that of the user (browser data, of course, still exists and has to be removed separately).

There are lots of reason why a user might want anonymity – legitimate and not so legitimate – but Anonym VPN has a second possibility worth considering, namely its general VPN security. Because as with any SSL-based VPN setup, Anonym is opening an encrypted tunnel to the Internet via an intermediary server, it can be used by mobile users to secure their link while using, say, a Wi-Fi hotspot. The latter tend to allow open unencrypted connections (i.e no need for WPA/WEP), and are inherently insecure. Opening a VPN is a neat way round that difficulty, and will work with all protocols, including HTTP and FTP.

The program includes the ability to use the client while excluding named servers that won’t allow you to log in through a VPN, such as banking or email servers (though most should work fine). Other than that, installation and configuration is rapid. Install a license key, fire up the program as often or as little as you please, and monitor data usage on a daily and monthly basis using the main configuration window. There was no need to find or specify a named server, or muck around with IP settings, all of which is built into the program itself.

An account comes with a data usage limit, which starts at 25GB per month. When this has been used up, the service defaults to no longer work so there is no possibility of slipping over the pre-defined limit. Normal or occasional Internet usage would come well within the required limit, but the visual usage meter lets a user know where they stand at any point in time.<

The one place this product won’t work is where there is a properly configured firewall such might be found at a customer site, but that is probably not the nest place to use such a program anyway. Anonym is in its element when out and about using public networks, on an occasional basis.

Conclusion

This is a simple product whose charm is that it can hide quite a complex technology behind a very simple client interface. Even though it is not the only public VPN service out there right now, it has to be one of the simplest to use, and for this reason we’d recommend it for single users. Corporate users needing to use the same idea but between larger numbers of people should look at a separate product, Steganos Secure VPN.

Disadvantages? At first it didn’t appear to be availability or performance, which was more than acceptable throughout on a subjective basis. Connecting took seconds and the server was always there. A closer look at performance revealed that throughput was taking a hit, slowing from about 3mbps without the VPN to considerably less than a third of that rate with it turned on. Using a VPN service will hit performance.

It’s also quite expensive for occasional use, costing $99 for 12 months surfing with a 25 GB allowance for each month. The no-limit service costs $399 for a year, while a single month can be bought for $14.95. We’d have liked a cheaper option whereby a much smaller amount of bandwidth could be bought for a one-off annual fee, but good ideas have to have at least one imperfection.

OUR VERDICT

Several companies sell VPN services, though most ask the user to do the configuration themselves if it's SSL-based. The advantage of Steganos is that that comes bundled into a small client program, in fact a sort of virtual network adaptor. The key question is how often a user will use such a service. If the answer is "a lot" then this approach will work out cost-effective. If not, there are cheaper VPN services out there.