Reading this tutorial will take longer than setting up and turning on your own private VPN
With the new Outline VPN, it’s never been easier or cheaper to secure your internet connection. Stop procrastinating and set it up now.
A quick introduction to VPNs
“Use a VPN!” You may have heard that frantic instruction lately? And it probably means nothing to you? Let’s demystify it, starting with the most basic reason you’d want to use a VPN: Public WiFi networks — like the kind you connect to at coffee shops, libraries, and airports — are not very secure.
Imagine that a WiFi router is like the penthouse of a tall building, where each wall in the room has a big window. You walk into the room and sit down in a chair facing one of the walls. Down below you is Internet Land — all the websites you can access (Facebook, Google, Reddit, Spotify, etc.) are buildings. Your window is your connection to the internet.
Other people can come into that room and also look at the internet, too — they’re also using this same router. They sit in chairs facing other walls. But if someone wanted to, they could turn their chair around to look at your wall and keep track of all the things you’re looking at.
Your home router is a private room that’s locked with your personal key, so no one else is in that room and no one is watching what you’re doing. You’re safe there as long as your router is set up properly. And while you’re on the WiFi at your workplace, you have an IT person watching everyone in the room, where everyone is mostly focused on their own internet browsing and probably wouldn’t have a reason to “turn around” and spy on you. But when you go to a coffee shop or library, there’s no IT person sitting there, and so anyone can “turn around” and “watch you.”
In this metaphor, a VPN is like a big curtain around your seat and your window. When you turn on the VPN — draw the curtain around you — no one in the room with you can see what you’re looking at on the internet.
So what really is a VPN?
A VPN is a server on the internet that you use to help make connecting to the internet more secure.
Let’s use another metaphor: Imagine you’re in jail. You want to know what time the Museum of Modern Art opens on Sundays. You have a family member who can go to MoMA and look at the hours on the door, and then let you know the times, but the only way you can communicate with that family member is via letter. So you write your question on a piece of paper and hand it to a guard. The guard reads your letter and then hands it to another guard who takes it outside to your family member who’s waiting at the gate. Then the guard goes to the warden and tells him what your letter said. In the real world, this is what it’s like when you’re at a coffee shop — there are multiple devices looking at what you’re passing to the outside world, and perhaps even some people reading what you’re doing.
Now imagine that you created an unbreakable code with your family member. If you wrote your letter with this code, the guards wouldn’t have any idea what you were asking. The message would still get to your family member, and they’d understand it, but your privacy would be preserved. In the real world, that’s what it’s like having a VPN — the “code” you’ve created is like the software you install on your computer to connect to your VPN, and then family member in the outside world is like the VPN server that you connect to.
So when your goal is to stop people from watching what you’re looking at on the internet, a VPN can help you accomplish that goal.
How can I start using a VPN?
There are lots of services out there that run VPNs you can buy access to. For $5 a month you can get access to a commercial VPN provider like NordVPN or Private Internet Access. But here’s the problem with them: You have no idea what they’re doing with your data.
They could be making sure no one’s watching your data as it passes from your computer to their server, but then they might be recording your data on their server, and keeping logs of what you’re doing. Or maybe they suck at setting up their server, and someone can easily break in and watch what all their users are doing! Not to mention that the more devices you connect, the more it costs — and if you’re a big team with a small budget, like at a non-profit or a community activism group, that’s untenable.
Don’t get me wrong: Lots of people use these services and there are a couple — like the ones I mentioned above — that are probably fine. You can see a very detailed chart of most of the known VPN services, with information about their practices, at “That One Privacy Site” to get an idea of who the good companies are, and who you can’t trust. For some folks, using a commercial VPN is fine — it’s easy, no maintenance, and the chances of something going awry are probably not that big.
Moreover, setting up your own VPN was — until now — wickedly difficult. Even the easiest packages (Algo VPN and Streisand VPN) required a level of competency above what most people have when it comes to setting up and managing servers. So the calculation was that it’s better to use a commercial VPN and take the chance that they might be selling data, or set up insecurely, then not use one at all, or take hours or days to set one up themselves.
Outline VPN changes everything!
Now, things are different — the calculation of using a commercial VPN because setting up your own is so difficult is no longer correct. For the first time, we have a tool that makes it so easy to set up your own server anyone, including you, can start using it in just a few minutes.
This tool is Outline VPN, which was created to help journalists have more secure internet connections.
Let me count the ways this is a better deal for you than a commercial VPN:
- It’s incredibly easy to set up
- Set up is very fast and there is no maintenance
- You can have more people on one account for a much lower cost
- The VPN server is yours, so there’s less concern about a your data being monitored and sold
Instead of the dozens, or hundreds, of steps required before to set up your own VPN, it’s now all done in just a few steps using a graphical interface just like any other program you use. Simply:
- Register an account on DigitalOcean (a web server provider)
- Download, install, and run Outline Manager
- Download, install, and run Outline Client
- Push “connect.”
That’s it. The whole process takes about 10 minutes. No coding involved, no server management, no technical expertise required.
Anything I should know before I spend 10 minutes setting this up?
A few disclaimers to start: First, this tool was created by a Google subsidiary. This might make some people nervous because of Google’s history of using free services to gather marketing data. There’s less cause for concern because, unlike something like Gmail, you own the VPN server* and no data is flowing through Google. There’s no mechanism for them to collect data. We know this because all the programs in Outline are open source, which means that people who understand how these things work can — and have — look at the code itself to make sure there’s nothing in there that could be dangerous or harmful to users.
Second, there is a speed “cost” to using a VPN — it’s not terrible, but it is noticeable. Pages may load slower and files may take longer to download when your VPN is turned on. You’re making a tradeoff between safety and speed on public networks. Assuming your home WiFi is set up properly, there’s really no reason to use it at home, or at work, so turn it off on those networks to get your best available speed.
And third, if you want to use a VPN because you believe you’re under threat from a government-level actor, you’ll want to consult with security experts about whether this VPN will protect you against the threats you’re facing. This tool is intended to help journalists have a safer connection to the internet, but it may not be able to protect your privacy in the face of government-level snooping. Your biggest benefit in using this VPN will be making your internet surfing safer on public WiFi networks.
Let’s set up Outline
Open the Outline VPN website: https://getoutline.org
I’ve put together the video below to allow you to watch the process of setup. The video is about 15 minutes long, but that’s because I’m explaining how things work — the actual steps only take a few minutes. If you don’t want to watch, there are instructions below.
- Have you ever set up a DigitalOcean account before? If not, do that first before anything else. Go to the DigitalOcean website and click “sign up.” [Disclosure: This is a referral link — you’ll get $10 in credit on DigitalOcean and I’ll get $25 in credit if you end up billing $25 or more.] Make sure to complete the process of setting up your account by validating your email address and adding credit card information. If you don’t complete that process, you may encounter errors when you start setting up the VPN. It’s also imperative you also add 2-factor authentication to your account for maximum account security.
- Go to the Outline VPN website and download the Outline Manager program. Then install and run it. It’ll ask you to log in to your DigitalOcean account. Once you do, you’ll then be asked to authorize the connection between Outline and your DigitalOcean account — check the box and approve the connection.
- Select a server by choose the one closest to your home, or the location in the world you’ll most often turn on Outline VPN. After that, the setup process will run for about two minutes.
- Outline Manager will bring you to the VPN server management screen. You’ll now be given the option to connect your computer to the VPN; just follow the tooltip instruction in Outline Manager to download the Outline Client onto your computer — this tool sets up the secure VPN connection between your computer and the server you just set up.
- Back in the Outline Manager, you can also add other “keys.” The rule here is one person, one key. So if you have a spouse, or friend, or teammate you want to be able to use this, give them a key, and they can use that key on all of their devices (laptop/desktop, phone, tablet). Outline guides you through the process of creating new keys, and provides a handy template email that includes a link to instructions for each person you create keys for. You can rename each key in Outline Manager so you know who you gave it to.
Now you’re done! Use the Outline Client (you’ll see it in your toolbar) to connect to your VPN whenever you’re on a network you don’t trust.
Remember that DigitalOcean will bill you for the server you created. The cost is quite low — Outline VPN automatically puts you on the lowest tier server (DigitalOcean calls them “droplets”) which costs just $5 a month, and provides 1 TB of data transfer. Chances are you’re probably only using a fraction of that, like 5% to 25%, a month in total while at home. Nonetheless, I recommend you log into DigitalOcean occasionally to check your billing and make sure you’re paying what you expect.
You can always open the Outline Manager program on your computer to add new keys for other friends or family that you want to use the VPN, or delete keys you no longer want to use. (See below for a screenshot.) You’re the only one that can do this. Friends you give the keys to can use them, but can’t change or delete them from your VPN server.
If you decide you don’t want to pay anymore, just use the menu in Outline Manager next to the server name to “forget” the VPN server. You’ll be billed by DigitalOcean for the time you’ve used up to that point, and for nothing after.
Happy surfing, and thanks for reading this far!
* Who owns the server?