There is one huge problem with the internet: it’s not secure and probably will never be.
Since the beginning, the world wide web is prone to issues related to cybersecurity, privacy and data breaching. When the internet was first designed, the major focus was to create, transmit and share information easily. There were lesser viruses and fewer data breaches, but, as I am writing this in 2019, my identity theft over the internet is easier than ever. From login spoofing to ransomware to data leaks (and everything in between), we are living in an era where every user on the internet is unsecure and vulnerable to attacks. Hackers are stealing financial records and credit card information even from the major websites that spend millions on cybersecurity. A week ago, British Airways faced a penalty of £183m for a data breach in which customers’ credit card data was stolen. Just not at this level, Governments are also accused of eavesdropping on their citizens and other criminal minds are just spying over and waiting for you to make a mistake.
How do you keep yourself secure?
You must have heard this advice before: Use a VPN.
Is VPN an answer to all your privacy-related concerns? Is it a one-stop solution that fixes everything? In this article, I am digging deep on this question.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network which provides a layer of security and privacy by masking your identity as you communicate over the internet. It encrypts and obscures your personal information as we browse or connect any smart technology that uses the internet. The use of VPNs at the organizational level has existed since long but due to recent data breaches and discussions around net neutrality, individuals have also put forward their trust on VPNs as a measure to protect their data and personal information.
Why VPNs for Personal use?
Whether you are sitting in a cafe or waiting at an airport, unsecured Wi-Fi networks are everywhere. In many situations, it’s the only way to get connected to the internet. All these public Wi-fi networks, whether open or password protected, are red flags. One really common threat on these public wifi networks is called Man-in-the-Middle attack (MitM attack). MitM attack is another form of eavesdropping where the attacker gets between the data you are transmitting to the internet. The attacker, then, can read it and misuse it in a hundred other ways.
Even when you are connected to a network which is secured or in a household, the internet service providers (ISPs) can see the traffic.
VPN works like a security layer that provides privacy and security by disguising your IP address and geolocation and protect your identity from all sorts of prying eyes. By using VPN, you are in a secret tunnel where no one can see you, so you can access sites which are blocked in your region, check your bank account and no third party can see your activities. Everything you do is encrypted.
But, should you trust VPN itself?
So, the internet is unsecure and VPNs protect you from it. This sounds great so far, right? But, even if VPNs are protecting you from all the attackers, there is one company that can still access what you are doing on the internet — The VPN company itself.
Does that mean that all individuals are swapping their data instead of protecting it? Maybe, yes or no! But, the good VPN companies that are doing the business to protect you won’t sabotage their business by selling your data or making your internet activity unsecure.
For example, a good VPN service can help to make sure that you are not being eavesdropped on when you are using the internet. But, no VPN can protect you from a website that tracks your cookies and tell other websites about you. All those websites that record your activities for retargeting and then sell your email addresses to advertising companies, cannot be stopped through a VPN service
In any case, don’t expect a VPN to work like a magic wand and remove your every footprint off the internet. There are many, many ways your security can be compromised and data can be leaked, and a VPN will be of only partial help.
Finding a good VPN that you can ‘Trust’
It is easier said than done. Just do a quick search on Google or App store with the word “VPN service” and you will be bombarded with the choices. Although there are a lot of review sites that provide one-to-one comparisons a better choice is to look for detailed reviews that explain what does the VPN offer, platforms it is compatible with, logging policy and tariff, etc. This detailed review of Private Internet Access is a really good example, to begin with.
For a non-technical person, it can be really confusing to sort through names when every company is promising the same. Every VPN service promises security and privacy better than others but as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has warned, promises do not mean that the VPN is trustworthy. So, what does?
Instead of typing ‘Best VPN service’, here are a few questions that you should keep at the top of your mind while doing your search:
- Who owns the VPN service and its credibility?
- What is their business model and how do they earn money?
- What does the VPN service claim about its ‘logging practice’?
- What do their existing customers think?
- Has there been any legal case against the company in the past?
These questions will help you do your initial credibility search and then reading more about their logging policy will help you make your final decision. For example, a good VPN company will always be very upfront about its logging policy and what data it keeps over time, even if it is aggregated or anonymous.
The bottom line is, using a VPN to protect yourself on the internet is definitely a really wise step but it is not an answer to all your privacy concerns. Despite their claims to be a one-stop solution for your online safety, they do not make a person absolutely anonymous online. They only disguise your traffic for some third parties. As I mentioned above, it’s not a magic wand but just one tool among many to protect your online privacy.