Since being founded way back in 1995, Opera has competed toe-to-toe with the big boys of the web browser world but has never really broken through to match Firefox, Internet Explorer or – most recently – Google Chrome. Now, however, the company may have developed a USP to claim extra market share and convert Chrome or Firefox fans.
Since March 20, Opera has been offering a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) application for its Android users via Google Play.
That’s something other browsers have been slow to implement, and haven’t always been able to do successfully. Done well, it could propel Opera up to the browser rankings, but is this the case, and should you give the browser a try?
This blog will look into the details of Opera’s new Android security add-on. As usual, we want to be 100% sure that the in-browser VPN delivers in all of the key areas. If it does, we’ll be happy to recommend Opera as a viable Chrome alternative, so let’s see if that’s the case.
A quick history of Opera
Before we look at this year’s security add-on, it’s essential to understand a few things about what Opera is, and where it comes from.
The browser started life in 1995 as an in-house project at Telenor – the Norwegian telecom company. Taken over by a separate Norwegian group soon after, Opera competed with Netscape and pioneered mobile-based browsing in the late 90s. It also relied on banner ads to fund its development, another innovation that caught on elsewhere.
In 2013, the browser migrated from the Presto layout to one based upon Chromium, bringing the user experience into line with the more widely used Chrome browser. And in 2016, the company was sold to the Chinese group “Golden Brick Capital Private Equity Fund I Limited Partnership,” run by entrepreneur Yahui Zhou.
So, to be clear: Opera is now a Chinese-owned web browser. As we’ll see, that could be significant when assessing the merits of the in-browser Virtual Private Network.
Introducing Opera’s new VPN
This isn’t the first time Opera has tried to include a Virtual Private Network for Android. An earlier incarnation was shut down in 2018, causing consternation among some users.
That earlier version was ad-free, had strong Android compatibility, offered a decent spread of global servers while integrating seamlessly with the browser. So, users could open up Opera and surf the web safely, without the need to open up a separate client.
The reasons for pulling the privacy tool weren’t exactly clear at the time, and the swift return of the VPN is even more confusing. Still, it’s good to see it back in the Opera package. Here are the basic features involved:
- Free – the Opera VPN is completely free of charge, just like the earlier version. There’s no need to provide payment details for a monthly subscription, which eliminates both hassle and worries about leaking confidential credit card details.
- Unlimited – the privacy tool comes with zero data limits, unlike many free providers. This means you can surf the web, stream videos, and generally do whatever you like within the confines of the Opera browser without worrying about being throttled or cut off.
- Simple – the Virtual Private Network has been designed to work “out of the box,” with very little work required to get it up and running (see below).
- Flexible – users can apply for privacy protection across all of their Opera windows, or open private windows alongside unsecured windows. That way, they can optimize their speeds and secure sensitive websites with ease.
- IP anonymization – the add-on promises thorough, reliable IP anonymization, scrambling your digital identity and making tracking impossible.
- Safe public wifi usage – Opera also make bold promises about locking down your smartphone on public wifi networks. This is a key vulnerability that many users neglect, so it’s good to have a quick, intuitive solution to use when you are out and about.
- Search engine pass-through – somehow, Opera have managed to set up their VPN so that user search results will reflect their physical location, not the location determined by their scrambled IP address.
All of that sounds pretty good for a free Android add-on, and Opera has certainly thought long and hard about how to fine-tune their browser with privacy in mind. But how easy is the app to set up, and will it be user-friendly enough for everyday customers?
How to activate the Opera VPN
Fortunately, setting up the Virtual Private Network on Android could hardly be simpler. This is actually one of the major strengths of Opera’s new privacy tool. Here’s how to get it up and running:
- Download, install and open the Opera browser.
- Go to the “Settings” menu.
- Now, click on “Advanced” on the left-hand side of the menu. After that, click “Features.”
- You should see the VPN listed as one of the core browser features, but it isn’t automatically enabled. Just click “Enable VPN” to engage your privacy protection – simple.
- When you start browsing, you should see a new “badge” in the address bar. This signifies that your browsing is protected, so double check that it’s there before logging onto any online services.
Does the Opera VPN offer enough protection for security-conscious users?
So far, we’ve considered surface-level Virtual Private Network features. In the case of Opera’s add-on, the basics are in place (unlimited data, easy setup, IP anonymization), but this won’t be enough for serious users.
And here’s where the bad news starts to mount. The major problem is that we don’t know much about what goes on under the hood when the Opera VPN is engaged. Notably, the Opera website says absolutely nothing about encryption or protocols. All it mentions is IP anonymization, which can be achieved by a primitive proxy, not a full-blown VPN.
To ensure effective protection from state agencies or hackers, users need more than IP scrambling. 256-bit AES encryption, OpenVPN, StealthVPN technology and – importantly – a kill switch all need to be included. None of these features are mentioned by Opera, so we have to assume that most aren’t there.
Then there’s the issue of web searches. It’s obviously nice to return localized search results, but there’s a reason why VPNs often fail to do so. When your IP address is relocated, engines like Google shouldn’t be able to tell where you are. The fact that Opera provides location information is worrying.
Logging could be another area of concern. We know that Opera collects a vast amount of what the company calls “anonymous usage statistics,” and it does so for a wide range of purposes. This includes quite vague areas like “To enhance, modify, personalize or otherwise improve our applications and services.”
The company’s mobile apps are also known for delivering targeted ads, which play a key role in the Opera business model. When a true VPN is engaged, targeting ads should be impossible. But it’s hard to imagine Opera doing away with their ad targeting for most browser users.
However, regarding the privacy tool itself, Opera states that “we do not log any information related to your browsing activity and originating network address.” That sounds good, but it leaves open quite a lot of personal information. And there’s no mention of how Opera deals with requests from law enforcement.
We should also reiterate something very important. As a Chinese company, Opera will most likely have tailored its products to the needs of Beijing, and the Great Firewall. This could well dilute the privacy protections on offer and isn’t a good sign at all.
The bottom line: should you use the free Opera VPN?
It would be fantastic to have a free, in-browser Virtual Private Network, with fast speeds, no data limits, and solid encryption. In fact, you can achieve that with providers like NordVPN or ExpressVPN, but you can’t with Opera’s VPN.
While this browser add-on is easy to use, fast, and free, it’s really little more than a convenient proxy, not a proper VPN
The absence of encryption (as far as we know) and basic features like a Kill Switch make it useless for users with genuine security worries, and even everyday Netflix users will struggle to benefit from its IP anonymization features.
The Android app is available on Google Play, so please feel free to give it a try if you’re fine with using Opera browser. It’s the first version after the beta stage, so expect some refinements in the future, but don’t set your hopes too high – Opera VPN for Android won’t have many features associated with elite VPNs. This is a lightweight, basic offering, but one that some users may find handy.