So my Brother (top bloke!) made me aware a couple of weeks ago about the recent events surrounding the Opera browser and SurfEasy’s VPN services. The uniqueness of this news is that the two companies have joined forces to provide a (supposedly) free and unlimited VPN service built into the opera browser, with no complicated configurations or annual fees. Their advertising and marketing is clearly aimed at those wishing to bypass location restrictions with blocked content and to provide obfuscation for anonymous browsing. An interesting marketing angle, and maybe not quite the one I would have picked, but it highlights their desire to drawn in particular demographics.
The most interesting part of this deal though is the fact that SurfEasy are providing their VPN services free of charge as part of the browsers’ internal (and optional) configurations. I can speak as a previous consumer of the SurfEasy VPN service to say that this is quite an interesting tactic given that their standard unlimited VPN services cost around £40-£50 per year, with a single annual payment for the privilege. Their product is good, albeit not perfect, and in fairness their customer service is second-to-none, but offering this service for free in a free to download browser may be seen by many as an odd move.
Who/what are Opera and SurfEasy?
Well in short, Opera is a very well-known and respected internet browser created by ‘Opera Software’ (original!) as another free alternative to the likes of Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Internet Explorer and so forth. It is not as widely used or adopted as the others, but is an old hat when it comes to internet browsing, and is actually a very good product and certainly a viable alternative if you ever get bored or fed up of the others.
They are a global company with their HQ based in Norway and tend to be quite focussed on developing for their identified demographics rather than necessarily copying what everyone else is doing. They also have their hands in marketing, advertising and business support, but this is very much aimed at the corporates rather than your general user.
SurfEasy are a Canadian security company who provide the SurfEasy VPN service, which is a well-trusted and well-respected VPN service to help protect you and your data traffic. However, it is not without its flaws, and due to issues they had with the latest releases of Windows 10, as well as occasional service drop-outs (so the VPN connection dropped), considerable throttling (VPN’s do reduce your bandwidth and data speeds given the security and encryption overheads involved, which is known as throttling…some are worse than others), and a few bugs in their client software, I personally pulled away from them some time ago. I must confess though, I do still really like them as a company, and I just wish their products were a little slicker and had slightly less negative impact on the user.
What is a VPN?
For anyone who doesn’t know what a VPN is then a very simple explanation would be to say that it stands for a ‘Virtual Private Network’ and when configured and enabled properly it essentially creates and puts in place a virtual tunnel from your device to your destination which encrypts and protects all of your data traffic passing through. This prevents hackers and people monitoring your network traffic from intercepting and making any sense of your data, protecting things like password and username combinations you enter into websites, or sensitive data you want to transfer across the internet to intended recipients, and so forth. There is more to it, but that is what it is, in essence.
Most companies use VPN services to allow their workers to securely work from home or remotely in order to ensure established, secure data connections between their device and their internal company networks.
Like all encryption, it is not the silver bullet of security (I do hate the ‘silver bullet’ term, but people seem to understand it given it is used every five-frickin’ minutes!!) but it is a very good starting point, none-the-less.
The likely reason why Opera and SurfEasy are targeting their marketing as they have is that you can also use VPN’s to disguise your IP address and essentially mask your location to make it appear as if you are connected via another location, including changing which country you’re supposedly located in. This allows people to use VPN’s to bypass country restrictions imposed by governments and regimes, or has previously allowed people in Europe to access services such as those on Netflix as if they were based in America in order to obtain the American (and vastly greater) content libraries. This can also be achieved by changing DNS server settings and so on, but it is rather rude and most certainly breaches your user agreements and any contract you have, so you really shouldn’t do it (kind of like performing a number of simple Denial of Service attacks or hacking techniques…surprisingly easy to do, but despite this, you really shouldn’t!).
Is this too good to be true…?
In essence, possibly, yes. I only say this because of some of the limitations that come with using this VPN service, and also because of some of the controversy surrounding the recent attempted purchase of Opera by a large Chinese investment group.
Firstly the limitations come because this VPN service only encrypts your browser data, so downloads from torrents, local applications, emails clients and so forth are not in any way encrypted using this wonderful combo. If all of your data transfers tend to be via a browser then this could well be a very suitable and viable option, but if not then don’t go away thinking it will encrypt all of your network traffic, because it won’t!
Another problem comes from the limitations on international server locations. Most commercial VPN services provide vast numbers of location servers around the world to enable people to access localised content and mask their origin either for security or just the desire for obfuscation. However, this service is only being offered via servers in Singapore, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States. Whilst this is a very generous offering for a completely free and well known service, it is still limiting. I have also seen many people in other forums, blogs and articles comment on the lack of a UK based server…which is a very interesting point when you start to wonder why that is…hmmm…
On the bright side, the recent attempted purchase of Opera by Chinese investors did fall through, which a lot of people were happy about given their mistrust of such a sale when privacy and security is very much involved in the deal. However, whether another attempt or bid is made is yet to be seen.
All-in-all, I do like the opera browser and I do like SurfEasy; the combination of the two is a very nice and appealing free offering which isn’t to be sniffed at. On the downside, if you’re precious of your extensive VPN locations, network speeds and do a lot of data transfers outside of your browser then maybe this isn’t really one for you. I do fully encourage people to try it out though and see if you like it, especially if you do a lot of work in a browser and currently use no other VPN services or encryption on your network. It could well add that additional layer of security that keeps you safe from compromise.