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The service gives users a strong level of 256-encryption and is completely free and unlimited, Opera said. iStock

Opera Software has released a new version of its developer browser that comes bundled with a virtual private network (VNP) built in. The feature is switched on via a simple toggle mechanism and claims to give users the ability to hide their IP addresses, spoof the geo-location of their computer and bolster security on public WiFi networks.

The service provides users with a strong level of 256-encryption and is completely free and unlimited – making it the first mainstream browser to offer such a privacy-focused feature, albeit only in the developer version so far. When users switch on the VPN, they will be able to change the country their computer appears to be located in – although only the US, Canada and Germany are options in this version.

Why do I need a VPN?

The move will likely appeal to two types of people: those concerned about data inception on public networks and those wanting to stream content online without being geographically restricted. According to tests, the Opera browser successfully circumvented Netflix protections, giving one user access to reams of US-based content that was previously out of reach. However, other sources report that Netflix – in line with recent moves to clamp down on VPN access – is already moving to put an end to this.

In a blog post, Krystian Kolondra, Opera's senior vice president of global engineering, explained why Opera has embraced VPNs.

"In January, we were reviewing our product plans, and we realised that people need new features in order to browse the web efficiently in 2016," he said. "It also became apparent to us that what people need are not the same features that were relevant for their browsers 10 years ago," he continued. "Now, you don't have to download VPN extensions or pay for VPN subscriptions to access blocked websites and to shield your browsing when on public WiFi. Bringing this important privacy improvement marks another step in building a browser that matches up to people's expectations in 2016."

How secure is my browsing using a VPN?

A recent study by security firm F-Secure demonstrated exactly how vulnerable data is when not protected on public networks. The firm orchestrated a 'hack' on three UK politicians to make the point – and the white-hat hacker involved was able to intercept data and snoop on web browsing in real-time with ease.

Yet while VPNs are frequently used by the privacy-conscious to secure internet traffic – especially in countries with harsh spying laws or internet censorship – it is often stressed they cannot be relied upon to offer full anonymity. In light of this, it didn't take long before internet detectives on Reddit downloaded and tested the software for themselves – and from a privacy perspective their assessment was fairly damning.

Opera Software does not claim to offer full anonymity with the product – simply enhanced privacy options. For any users using the web to download illegal content – which some use a VPN to facilitate – only a "high-end solution" will offer full protection from snooping. Indeed, one more balanced commenter wrote: "This is for these people and it will find a niche just fine. And as the blog post on the Opera site mentioned, not everyone who uses a VPN does it for the same reason, anonymity is not the only thing [and] in fact it's not even 50%."

What's the catch?

Users noted that Opera Software is close to being acquired by a Chinese firm and that Opera's main business model is based on advertising – which uses customer data to make money. Furthermore, commenters raised concerns about Opera's purchase of SurfEasy VPN a year ago and claimed it cannot be fully trusted because the firm is based in Canada – a nation compliant in the Five Eyes cyber-sharing agreement.

"Opera purchased SurfEasy VPN just over a year ago. SurfEasy is a VPN company located in Canada (a Five Eyes country). They keep bandwidth and usage logs. These are temporary, but they're still logs," wrote one user. "Remember, if you aren't paying for it, you are the product. Opera isn't doing this out of the kindness of their heart, they are in it for your data as that's how they operate. There are many VPN companies that do not log their user's data. They might ask a fee, but that's what's required for the best possible privacy in this arena."

Opera's offering is a welcome solution to dodging geo-restricted content, like watching iPlayer abroad or jumping on a public WiFi with more confidence but be aware if you're looking for a complete privacy solution.