I’ve given everything away in the title. If you want better privacy online, use a VPN, but don’t expect perfect protection.
Another blog post discussing the benefits of a VPN might feel unnecessary in 2020. Hundreds of companies give you thousands of reasons on why you need one, bombarding you through ads, flashy landing pages and YouTube shout-outs. These promotions are often misleading or even harmful.This is why we need clarity.
The first article in this series is ‘Why you don’t need a VPN’. There we have established that VPNs are not useful, or not alone sufficient for most use cases mentioned in VPN marketing lingo. They won’t provide perfect privacy, total anonymity or complete security.
Today we aim to set the record straight by expanding all use cases you need a VPN for. Commercial VPNs are imperfect tools, with the potential of giving a false sense of security. However, there are real, demonstrable privacy- and security-protecting benefits of using one.
Privacy under attack
Privacy violations were the most important reasons for VPN usage in the past ten years. Permanent records are created about most human beings from the moment we go online. Data collected on our actions is used to profile us, grabbing our attention and influence our behavior. This data is immensely valuable - we are now a desirable commodity. Our privacy is under constant attack every day from governments and corporations. Even if you think have nothing to hide, those profiling you hold power over you.
Those who want to resist becoming exploited data sources need tools to stop the unwanted capture of information. VPNs alone can’t do that in entirety, no matter what certain providers promise. They can be an essential part of an online security and privacy improving toolkit, however:
- You need to be are aware of the limitations of VPNs
- You need to trust your VPN provider more than you trust your ISP and/or your government
In short, a VPN encrypts the data between your device and the VPN server. This protects your connection from data collection and snooping by entities you don’t trust. They can also solve other problems, like getting around censorship and geographical blocking.
What VPNs can do for you
Let’s go through the benefits of using a VPN in 2020. What exact advantages are there?
- Privacy benefits of encryption. Using a commercial VPN hides your browsing history from your internet service providers, including your mobile provider. A list of websites you have visited in a period gives powerful insights into your life. If you connect to a VPN, your ISP won’t be able to sell your browsing history to advertisers and data brokers. Legislations covering the possibilities for commercial transactions vary from country to country, but they are permissive in the United States specifically since 2017.
Governments in many countries (US and UK included) have a wide range of investigative powers and can also get your detailed browsing history from ISPs. These companies are very unlikely to put up any fight against official requests. Your VPN provider might and they are less likely to keep logs on your activities. This is where the trust factor comes in: a transparent, audited VPN service with clear no-logs policy can be an ally your ISP never will be.
- Privacy benefits of IP address masking. When connecting to a VPN, it hides your private IP and ideally mixes your new public address with many other users. This means no one can associate your activity with your persona based on this identifier alone. In addition, this provides increased anonymity on peer-to-peer networks. Websites have a harder time figuring out you are visiting them, associating your actions tied to a personal profile. This adds limited tangible value to identity protection, however, as there are dozens of different other ways to identify users of apps and visitors of websites. If any of the other signals give away your persona, you lose your initial anonymity.
- Information security benefits of encryption on WiFi networks you don’t trust. Since a VPN tunnel encrypts your connection between your device and the server, the operator of a network can’t monitor or log what you do online. It protects you from common attacks capturing your sensitive data, like Man-in-the-Middle or Evil Twin, which make eavesdropping on your connection possible when connecting to a WiFi you cannot fully trust. For these reasons, if you care about privacy, use a VPN when accessing the Internet in hotels, cafes, libraries and government run places. There is a flip-side to this: if you are the network operator or you trust them, these issues won’t affect you much. In that case, a VPN is only necessary if you care about other problems discussed in this post.
- Connecting to a VPN servers in another country can unlock websites and content blocked from you. Most common use case is accessing geo-fenced content, for example Netflix shows available only in the US, and BBC iPlayer in the UK. The increased demand for this advantage has enabled a new breed of VPN providers focusing on this specific need, offering free or cheap services at the expense of sound security practices and strict privacy policies. In other cases, governments censor tools and websites or even cut off parts of the internet, forcing citizens to turn to technical solutions. This happens not only under oppressive regimes, but in autocratic states that are still democracies. VPNs are useful for getting quick, stable access to blocked sites - yet you should not use a free one, no matter how desperate you are.
Do you need a commercial VPN to solve these issues?
- for the second problem, a trusted proxy could be sufficient
- to address the third issue only, you can roll your own VPN server, but that won’t protect your privacy
To get the benefits of any other points or their combinations, you should pick and use a trustworthy commercial service.
To summarize, if you care about your privacy online and understand the limitations of how a VPN can help you protect it: you need one. In the next post in this series, we’ll go beyond VPNs to talk about the bigger picture in this fight for the right to privacy and personal autonomy.