Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can improve your online security and privacy. They should also help you do more, such as bypass geo-blocks and other forms of censorship. Yet these services are far from perfect, and some might like to consider alternatives to VPNs instead.
The full-blown VPN experience isn’t something that everyone wants or needs. In some cases, a VPN may also be unavailable. For instance, if your VPN doesn’t provide an app capable of deploying on your smart TV.
If you decide that a VPN might not be for you, here are some alternative options.
1. Proxy Servers
Proxy servers are an alternative to VPNs that you can use to bypass firewalls and access blocked websites or services. There are multiple service levels from proxy server providers, so each may have different capabilities.
However, the general premise is that most proxy servers offer minimum security, easy access, and rudimentary geo-unblocking capabilities.
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Proxy Server vs. VPN
Theoretically, proxy servers and VPNs are pretty similar. They both involve a connection to a remote server. From there, all web access will be via that connection. Your device essentially “adopts” the profile of the proxy server, masking it from intrusive requests on the web.
However, the fly in the ointment is twofold. The first is that most people search for free proxies as VPN alternatives, which may be more dangerous. These servers are often poorly managed and may steal your data instead of protecting it.
Additionally, Proxy server connections are mainly unencrypted, further increasing your risk profile. That’s especially so in comparison with highly-encrypted VPN environments. While there are some secure proxy servers, these often require a service fee, so you might as well pay for a VPN.
Proxy servers are also often less capable of accessing media streaming services due to high numbers of users utilizing the same IP address. That allows streaming services like Netflix to easily identify and block proxy server users.
When to Use Proxy Servers
Ideally, you should not take proxy servers as long-term solutions. Only use proxy servers in contingencies where you need to access blocked content, but a VPN is unavailable. The exception to the rule is if a reputable service provider provides the proxy server and you need faster speeds – such as for direct file download.
SmartDNS is a technology that allows you to access geo-restricted content by rerouting your DNS requests to a proxy server. It's not as secure as a VPN, but it's faster and much more affordable.
Once deployed, SmartDNS helps your device unblock websites and stream channels from anywhere in the world. All you need to do is connect the device of your choice with a network cable or WiFi connection—depending on how you built your home network.
SmartDNS vs. VPN
The most crucial difference between a VPN and SmartDNS is that the latter doesn’t require a dedicated app. Hence, you can set up a SmartDNS service on any device. For example, I use it with my LG television since my VPN doesn’t have an app that works with LG’s OS.
SmartDNS is excellent for more lightweight devices with less processing power since the service has no real overhead. The drawback is that there’s also no encryption, meaning your data can be at risk.
If you’re interested in SmartDNS, there are several services you can consider. Some VPN providers like Surfshark and NordVPN include SmartDNS as a service feature. There are also standalone SmartDNS services like Smart DNS Proxy and TV When Away.
When to Use SmartDNS
SmartDNS is ideal for media-centric devices like televisions. It’s lightweight and great for media streaming since you get relatively fast speeds. It isn’t suitable for security, so you shouldn’t treat SmartDNS as a full-blown VPN alternative.
3. Zero Trust Network Access
Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is a network access control system that treats all devices as untrusted. ZTNA uses a network access control system to control the network and relies on a centralized policy server to manage access to the network.
ZTNA uses a cloud-hosted service for remote users, providing them access rights based on their role and location within your organization. That makes it easier for IT professionals to manage user rights from one central location.
ZTNA vs. VPN
As you might guess, ZTNA isn’t for everyone. It’s mainly relevant in a corporate scenario and, even then, mainly in larger organizations. It helps tech administrators within the organization secure networks without micromanaging individual devices.
Similar to VPNs, the performance of ZTNA depends on several factors. These include the local infrastructure, remote infrastructure, and even the design of the ZTNA deployment. It goes well beyond the basic VPN in terms of skills required for management.
When to Use ZTNA
ZTNA offers much higher levels of security than the average consumer VPN. That makes it ideal for securing communications between branch offices, managing remote worker access, and similar activities. ZTNA should not be a consideration for home use.
4. Cloud VPN Service
Cloud VPNs are a type of Software-as-a-Service or SaaS. When you use an app with this backend architecture, processing power, and storage management are remote. That helps reduce the burden on local devices, saving cost and improving resource efficiency.
Cloud VPN Service vs. VPN
If this makes Cloud VPN sound drastically different from a VPN, that’s because it is. Despite the similarities in name, Cloud VPN is a higher-level infrastructure service. They go beyond the direct data transfer capabilities of VPNs.
To illustrate this, consider the encryption requirements of VPNs. The encryption is local, meaning that VPN speed partially relies on your device. With a Cloud VPN, everything is on remote servers. Examples of Cloud VPN service providers include Google Cloud VPN, NordLayer, and Perimeter81.
When to Use Cloud VPN
Cloud VPNs are a hybrid of ZTNA and VPN rolled into one but somewhat simplified. The key is the VPN gateway, which unfortunately means most home users won’t sign on for these services. The lower cost compared to ZTNA does make Cloud VPN suitable for other categories of business users, like SMEs.
5. The Onion Router (Tor)
The Tor Network is a free project that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.
Tor directs Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of servers to conceal user location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis. Tor hides the source and destination of your data, so tracing is more challenging.
Tor also makes it more difficult for people to monitor your internet activity by making it appear like you're using the Internet from another country than where you are. This masking can be helpful when trying to access websites or services unavailable in certain countries or regions (e.g., YouTube).
Tor vs. VPN
Both Tor and VPN help keep online activities anonymous. While both Tor and VPN provide a degree of anonymity, they do so in very different ways. Think of a VPN as a solid wall that protects your data on all sides.
Comparatively, Tor will be a maze that doesn’t completely block access to your data but constantly shifts to make tracking much more difficult. However, the long meandering route your data takes also means much slower Internet access because of the way Tor works.
Finally, Tor isn’t great if you need control over your location. The route is random, so you can’t simply pick a server and adopt that server’s identity. It’s like Russian roulette – you spin the barrel and take your chances.
When to use Tor
Tor is a powerful tool and can be an excellent addition to any privacy-focused user's digital toolkit. However, there are some cases where it isn't the ideal solution for your needs. But if you want to browse the web from a different IP address with peace of mind that your anonymity is protected, Tor deserves a place in your software arsenal.
Although VPNs are an excellent way to browse the internet, some alternatives can provide the same level of security and anonymity. You can get much of the same privacy and security benefits as you would with a pure-VPN solution by using a few of these services to access different types of content.
The problem is that most solutions better than VPNs aren’t for the average home user. They’re designed for corporate use and priced for that level of attention. Cheaper solutions are usually less capable and, in some cases, increase risk.
While you might be able to use a VPN alternative in limited scenarios, your best bet is to invest in a reputable VPN brand for the long run.