In 2016, Norwegian tech firm Opera Software became the first major browser developer to fully embrace virtual private networking.
The company’s first VPN browser integration was initially launched within its desktop development channel; a few months later, Opera released a free VPN app for mobile iOS devices and later for Android.
While desktop users wait for the next-generation Opera browser to be publicly released, the company seems to be focusing on mobile users first, which can be expected since Opera commands a significant share of the mobile browsing market.
While the Opera VPN initiative is certainly welcome, users who are concerned about privacy and security should carefully evaluate what this Norwegian company actually offers at this time. Competing browsers such as Google Chrome are also looking into VPN integration, and it is safe to assume that they are keeping a close eye on how Opera manages safer browsing.
What Opera VPN Really Offers
VPN is no longer something that appeals exclusively to online privacy and anonymity enthusiasts. Over the last few years, revelations of the global Internet surveillance conducted by the United States National Security Agency have increased awareness about the need for private and secure browsing.
It’s not just the NSA that Internet users have to worry about. Cybercrime is at an all-time high, and major Internet firms from Google to Apple and from Microsoft to Yahoo are engaged in massive data collection for their own commercial purposes. Furthermore, online censorship and blocking of regular Internet access is a problem that has grown beyond nations such as China.
VPN browser integration is not exactly new; it has been available for a couple of years within ultra-secure packages such as Tails, a special operating system that focuses on advanced security features such as anonymity via the TOR network, plausible deniability and absolute deletion of browsing history.
Looking at the Opera VPN app for iOS and Android, users get some of the standard features available from other VPN solutions: secure browsing, the ability to change IP to a few geographic locations, an ad blocker, a basic network analysis tool that alerts users about risky Wi-Fi hotspots, and encrypted communications.
It is important to note that the free Opera VPN mobile apps do not limit their functionality to their branded browsers. Once installed the VPN service will try to extend its functionality to device connection and to the rest of the apps. This is very useful when, for example, someone using the YouTube or Netflix apps wishes to access content that is not available outside of the United States.
There are two caveats of the Opera VPN apps. First of all, the ad blocking feature is limited to the browser, and it actually displays some ads broadcast by Opera; these ads are by no means intrusive but they are a reminder that Opera Software is a company that needs to earn revenue even as it offers a free service. The other caveat is that the Opera servers may throttle bandwidth during peak usage, and this is something that could affect the growth of the service.
How Much Privacy Does Opera VPN Offer?
Opera has been offering VPN-like services for a while. This revolutionary company introduced Turbo browsing and mobile data compression years ago. These features essentially acted as a proxy and routed traffic from the company’s Norwegian servers to considerably speed up user experience.
VPN browser integration is proven to work for most Internet navigation needs. Opera is certainly a trustworthy company, and thus users can feel comfortable about features such as the AES-256 encryption and the ability to change their IP to unblock content and to circumvent censorship measures such as the Great Chinese Firewall. To this effect, Opera VPN users should not feel unprotected as long as they are using an Opera browser and the address bar indicates that the VPN feature is on.
As far as the rest of the smartphone and tablet apps being protected, users cannot be reassured unless the app itself has a feature to check how it connects to the Internet. Even within the Opera browser, plugins such as WebRTC for browser-based video calling may not work well with the VPN integration; however, this is something that will likely be improved in the future.
Users who are concerned about their online privacy might be better off sticking to VPN solutions that specifically change the IP of the device. Some free services and all paid services include a feature that pings outside connections to test them and ensure that all apps are protected. This is important when using apps such as Skype, instant messenger, games that connect players through the Internet, etc.
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Another concern is related to websites and streaming services that block content on a regional basis. Since Opera products are moderately popular, companies such as Netflix and Hulu will likely map the VPN servers used by Opera and proceed to block them. Thus far, Netflix has been notorious for doing this.
Smaller, commercial VPN providers are more likely to fly under the radar and avoid being blocked. To this end, some proactive VPN companies offer users the ability to connect to servers in different cities; in fact, some of them suggest strategies that consist of jumping from one server to another throughout browsing sessions.
In the end, Opera Software deserves praise for its free VPN initiative, which will surely inspire other browser developers to follow suit for the purpose of making privacy more accessible to everyone. Nonetheless, users should keep in mind that these VPN solutions are mostly browser-based and not all-encompassing.