Google’s parent company Alphabet is releasing a new solution that could possibly change the nature of VPNs in the future. It’s called Outline and the innovation is that users can set it on their own servers, guaranteeing that no one will have access to any connection details and therefore eliminating the everlasting doubt about VPN companies and their no-log policies. But there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this, too, including accusations of plagiarism. The truth is this may just well be a revolutionary tool that many can use for free and – given its simplicity – will open to everyone. But how exactly does it work, and can it be considered safe?
The Product and the Controversy
Formerly known as Google Ideas and now a subsidiary of Alphabet, Outline comes from the mind of Jigsaw – not the infamous horror movie villain but a technology incubator instead – that is being accused by a security researcher of plagiarism. Back in 2016, Dan Guido released AlgoVPN, an open-source and self-hosted VPN solution that he “finds hard to believe Jigsaw was unaware of” as he “met their engineers more than once,” Guido revealed through Twitter. While this surely looks plausible, it’s still currently unclear whether this is true or not.
Google sure is good at plagiarizing my work. I released @AlgoVPN, an open-source, self-hosted VPN solution, in 2016. I find it hard to believe @Jigsaw was unaware since I’ve met their engineers more than once.https://t.co/juEq5GtKIF
— Dan Guido (@dguido) March 20, 2018
Regardless, what is known is that Outline is only compatible with Windows computers and Android mobile devices at first, though Mac and iOS support will be added at a later stage. It works just like any other VPN, allowing users to connect to foreign countries and overcome the virtual geographical barriers of any website or service, all the while scrambling the connection details to any snoopers. This is precisely Outline’s main purpose, since though many VPN companies do follow no-log policies that promise not to store any connection details, it’s still hard for consumers to know exactly how trustworthy that promise really is.
With Outline this is not a problem as the VPN is hosted by each user and not by a company using either their own physical servers or virtual ones hosted on cloud platforms. The former is typically free of any costs – except the price of the actual physical device – but the latter is not expensive either, since for $5 per month users can have 500GB of traffic. Jigsaw recommends Digital Ocean, a cloud provider in which setup is easy and can be done in minutes. Also, Outline is programmed to auto-update whenever necessary, while its open-source code is publicly available so it’s possible for anyone to check and confirm that it doesn’t store logs.
Once set, Outline allows the generation of secret link keys that can be shared with other users, which is particularly useful for activist organizations that need to act ‘under the radar’, or journalists living in oppressive regimes.
However, Jigsaw itself states that Outline doesn’t prevent websites from identifying users, which can happen if the VPN is hosted on a skeptical cloud provider that might be logging traffic data that originates from its servers. Likewise, China’s Great Firewall and other countries’ methods are still able to identify Outline’s IP addresses and block them, though its configuration makes this hard because of the randomized port connections that it establishes with users and the fact that each one’s unique key protects the program from responding to scan or ping sensors.
Outline and Other Free VPNs
For the general user, a service’s quality is as important as the price that is paid for it and Outline surely looks attractive in this regard. Not only does it provide the same service that every VPN user might be used to, but it also offers the perk of complete anonymity when installed on private servers. Comparing this to the best free VPNs, there’s something that makes Outline hard to compete with: the amount of data allowed per month. Usually, free VPNs have limits on data transfer, often a shorter server network or amount of provided traffic, but no free service gets even close to 500GB per month.
It’s still too early to think of Outline as the next greatest thing in the VPN world. Yet despite the controversy surrounding its origin, it does give users the chance of hosting and managing their own VPN easily, share it with whoever they want, and can rest assured that it is trustworthy.
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