Security & Privacy: A VPN Can Help Keep Your Activities Private
Security and Privacy are two vitally important components of any successful society. They are even more important in today’s connected world where we carry computers in our pockets and share all our details on social networks.
This section of Pocketnow is devoted to why security and privacy are important, how you can protect yourself in today’s connected world, and which pitfalls you need to be aware of and avoid – with the objective of helping you and your loved ones stay safe in an ever-changing world.
As I mentioned in our introductory article, security is an integral, foundational component of any strong society. As a review, security is the state of being free from danger or threat. The way we realize it is through privacy – the state or condition of being free from being observed by other people.
In recent news, a rule change in these United States may allow our very own internet service providers (ISPs) to resell the information about the activities we undertake while utilizing their services. The implications of this are staggering.
Or are they? We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Virtual Private Networks
This is where VPN can help – but it’s not a cure-all.
When you connect to WiFi, you probably know better than to connect to an unencrypted access point. Doing so exposes all your web traffic to anyone within several hundred feet. To “secure” this, various encryption protocols have been released (WEP, WPA, WPA2, etc.). No encryption scheme is 100% secure, but the harder you make it for others to snoop, the more likely it is they’ll search out easier targets. Even on a properly secured wireless network, the person providing that network can still snoop on your traffic.
VPN – Virtual Private Network – is a method through which the network connection on your mobile device connects to a VPN server somewhere in the world. All your traffic is routed through this “pipe” to their computers.
Traffic sent between your device and your VPN provider is supposed to encrypted – but not all are. Do your homework first. This way, even if you are connecting to an open WiFi network, your traffic is encrypted from casual snoopers, and it’s encrypted from the person providing that WiFi network, too. Bonus!
The catch here is that your network traffic has to pop out of the VPN tunnel somewhere, and at that point it’s unencrypted. What’s more, your VPN provider is still subject to subpoenas, warrants, National Security Letters, and “cooperation agreements” with law enforcement agencies. If they’re logging traffic, that VPN endpoint is now a honeypot – instead of going after a cellular provider, your college campus, your employer, and your home internet service provider to “investigate” your traffic, now they need only go one place: your VPN.
Some VPNs do not log traffic. I’ve been using IPVanish, StrongVPN, and NordVPN over the last several months (IPVanish and StrongVPN accounts were provided to me for free in exchange for my honest review). Each offers a different set of features, and each come with a different cost. I’ve been most impressed with IPVanish, which works on my Windows 10 laptop, my iPhone, and my Android.
While a VPN is by no means a “cure-all” or “magic bullet” in our quest for privacy, getting the right one to suit your circumstances can go a long way to helping.
Don’t be shocked. This isn’t anything new.
Yes, I agree that it’s a breach of privacy, but it’s something that’s been done by Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, GeoCities, and any number of content and service providers who came before them.
It’s called “advertising”.
When I buy groceries or auto parts, I use their “loyalty card” to get “special discounts”. When I buy movie tickets or concessions, I use their loyalty card to get special discounts. When I buy gasoline, I use their loyalty card to get anywhere from three- to five-cents off every gallon.
By doing so, I am voluntarily giving these resellers an account number which uniquely identifies the purchaser as me. They can know the items I purchased, they can know the locations where I made the purchases, and they even know when I made those purchases.
I trade all that for three cents off every gallon of gasoline, or for a “special discount” on each loaf of bread. Where’s the outrage there?
No, not that kind of cookie.
Websites are what we call “stateless” applications – at the core, a web page is just a document which references assets (images, sounds, styles, fonts, etc.) and has no idea who you are. Everyone who asks for a page the same basic document. That’s got some obvious limitations.
Sites like Gmail, Facebook, your bank, and any others to which you must login have to know who you are – and keep track of who you are between pages that are served.
You wouldn’t want your bank account shown to someone else, right?
One of the ways websites accomplish that is through cookies. These are small files which are held on your computer by your web browser and help identify you to the server from which they’re served.
While this works fairly well for social networks, email clients, banks, and others, advertisers have figured out how to use them to track you between any sites that display ads from that advertiser.
A VPN won’t help protect you against ads or cookies, but a VPN may help keep your everyday traffic a little more private, and will help mitigate any concerns you have over that FCC rule change, a school who monitors their network, or even an employer that wants to make sure you’re following their “acceptable use” policy.
No Free Lunch
Lastly, and this isn’t just relegated to VPNs, as the old saying goes:
There is no such thing as a “free lunch”.
In general, if something is “free”, it usually is far too expensive to consider. This is especially true of VPN providers. Do your research, find a good one, then pay them for their services.
After all, if something is “free”, it’s highly probable that you are the commodity that’s being sold – your demographics, your eyes, your mind, your privacy.
Stay tuned! Each week we will cover another topic pertaining to your privacy and security. TOR, HTTPS/SSL, chat services, and more are coming your way!