[PRIVACY] Do You Need a VPN?

Category: Privacy

An AskBob reader asks, “Do I need a VPN to be safe online? A friend advised me to subscribe to a free VPN service to protect my privacy, but I don’t really understand why. What is a VPN, anyway?” Read on to learn about virtual private networks, and find out if you need one…

What is a VPN?

“VPN” stands for “Virtual Private Network.” A private network is one in which only authorized parties can participate. To grossly oversimplify, a Virtual Private Network is a private network set up on the public Internet, using encryption to ensure that no uninvited parties can eavesdrop on those who are authorized to participate in the VPN.

VPNs are especially popular among multi-location businesses. A VPN allows all the locations of such a business to communicate with each other via the public Internet privately and securely, without all the expense of dedicated hard wires running between all locations. Also, mobile workers can connect to a VPN from any Internet access point and exchange confidential data with other guests on the VPN. Some popular VPN providers are NordVPN, ExpressVPN, SurfShark, and CyberGhost.

Let’s look at how you would use a VPN service to communicate with a website. As a subscriber to a VPN service, your computer has VPN client software installed on it which enables it to connect securely and invisibly with the service provider’s VPN server. When you type your desired website's address into your browser, that data is encrypted and sent to the service provider’s VPN server. The VPN server then initiates a connection to the target site and securely relays data between you and the site.

VPN Services - pros and cons

This sounds like the “secure connection” indicated by the “https:” protocol that every Web browser can provide, doesn’t it? And it is, as far as the “secure connection” part goes. But a VPN (sometimes referred to as a proxy) also conceals the IP address of the person using it. When you access a website using a VPN, it appears to that site as if you came from the IP address of the VPN server, and not your own. The use of a VPN also hides all the URLs (website addresses) you access from your service provider. And all that obfuscation is quite often the desired effect.

Why, you might wonder? I suppose some folks who are ultra privacy conscious may want to cover their tracks in this manner. But scammers in Nigeria can also use this technique to make it look like they are located in the USA, and avoid tripping fraud alarms.

Accessing Blocked Content

Beware the WebRTC Flaw: According to VPN provider NordVPN, most browsers have a security vulnerability that may leak your IP address if you’re using a feature called WebRTC on a “sub-par” VPN. See How to disable WebRTC and prevent leaks to test your VPN for WebRTC leaks, and learn how to work around this problem.

A VPN or proxy service can also be used to get around blocks imposed by content providers or their own government. Netflix and Hulu Plus, for example, do not allow connections from outside the USA. So users in other countries have used VPNs located in the USA to gain access. Users in China are forbidden from accessing many "Western" websites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. By using a VPN server, they can (sometimes) get around those blocks.

Here’s an example of another potential problem with using a VPN service. Some VPN servers are located in many countries, including China. Let's say you want to login to your online banking this way. When the VPN server tries to complete your connection to your bank, it may appear to your bank that someone in China (or Iceland, or France, or…) is trying to impersonate you. Fraud alarms will ring and your connection will be denied. Your account may even be temporarily frozen for your protection.

Another potential problem is that all data exchanged through a VPN server is potentially stored on that server. If that server is compromised, so are you. Also, users of free VPN services often complain that slow or lost connections are commonplace.

My Bottom Line on VPN Services

A VPN can be useful when you are using public wifi. If your laptop or smartphone is connected to a public wifi access point that does not require a password, then all non-encrypted traffic from and to your device can be easily captured or viewed by that guy in the green shirt, sitting across from you in the cafe, library or airport. If the website you are accessing starts with "http" and not "https" then your connection is not encrypted. All the green shirt guy needs is some free software that enables him to "sniff" the wifi signals being transmitted, and he can see that you're shopping for lingerie at Neiman Marcus, or whatever.

However, if you are accessing a secure site (the address starts with "https") then your connection is already encrypted, so a VPN would add no additional protection. And in most cases, any site that requires a password (your webmail, bank, social media, etc.) is already using a secure https connection to protect your privacy.

If you access non-secure sites via public wifi, a VPN may be a good idea. If you want to hide your web browsing activity from your internet service provider, use a VPN. If you're traveling abroad, and you absolutely must watch your favorite shows on Netflix or Hulu, then you might want to subscribe to a VPN service. If you're a Nigerian scammer who wants to order stuff on US-based websites using stolen credit cards, you definitely want to use a VPN. Otherwise, it's probably unnecessary and a waste of money.

If you do need a VPN, you may not have to spend money on a subscription. If you have a computer at home, and you travel with a mobile device, you can install a free VPN server such as UltraVNC.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below…

 
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Most recent comments on "[PRIVACY] Do You Need a VPN?"

Posted by:

Bob K
14 Oct 2020

At times I use TOR. I am not trying to hide anything, except some sites I may visit, and normally they know me, can get very obnoxious in flooding me with emails.

Example: I am a customer of https://zooky.com, (phony site) and go to their site to see what they are offering today for cellphones. For 6 months, I'll me getting emails from them pushing the exact phone they know I need. So, I make that initial search thru TOR, and they have no idea who I am.

TOR has some problems, but does offer some advantages of a VPN.


Posted by:

Steve
14 Oct 2020

I don't agree. 2 years ago, I got a visit from an FBI agent. Seems somebody used my IP to post threatening comments. The agent said it was happening frequently in my area. He suggested using a VPN. Installed one, since then, no problem. I got a lifetime deal from KeepSolid


Posted by:

sborau
14 Oct 2020

A VPN service is helpful if you want to push back against so many sites scraping your personal data as you pass through them.

Did you know that the Opera browser now has built-in VPN!?!

You can also download the TOR browser to accomplish the same affect.


Posted by:

JP
14 Oct 2020

The UltraVNC site describes their product as: "Ultra VNC is a powerful, easy to use and free - remote pc access softwares - that can display the screen of another computer (via internet or network) on your own screen. The program allows you to use your mouse and keyboard to control the other PC remotely." Doesn't sound like a VPN to me.

Although limited to only 3 servers in the free version, there's ProtonVPN. It keeps no logs and has no data cap.

https://protonvpn.com/free-vpn


Posted by:

Jim
14 Oct 2020

Here's another VPN application: This may be a little geeky, but youu can use a VPN when you are travelling with with a laptop to access your home computer and check your Quicken accounts, etc., which are obviously confidential info you do not want snooped. A Raspberry Pi can serve as the VPN server, which is fairly easy to set up using online tutorials, and costs about $40 to buy and no ongoing cost.

This also serves as a general purpose VPN for protection on the road where you will use wifi in airports, restaurants, and hotels where a VPN is highly recommended. All your traffic will be secure back to your home, and appear to originate from your home network.


Posted by:

Charlie
14 Oct 2020

“If the website you are accessing starts with "http" and not "https" then your connection is not encrypted. All the green shirt guy needs is some free software that enables him to "sniff" the wifi signals being transmitted, and he can see that you're shopping for lingerie at Neiman Marcus, or whatever. “

I checked and have not found any pages (lingerie or otherwise) at Neiman Marcus that are NOT https:// Also, I have not found any pages at any “big” outfit that are not https:// If fact, I have so far not found any pages, big or small, that are http:// (without the “s”). Can someone point me at such a “rara avis” ?


Posted by:

Charlie
14 Oct 2020

I did finally find a couple --
http://www.ufl.edu/
http://statements.ufl.edu/
--- although some of the links on these pages go to https:// pages.


Posted by:

Grahame
14 Oct 2020

I have always considered others infiltrating anyone's privacy on the internet the equivalent of "break and enter" in the physical world and wondered why strict laws have not been passed to combat this.


Posted by:

Greg
14 Oct 2020

Charlie, I heard a podcast a while back talk about this and they said something like 95% of web sites were using https, so its not surprising that you were not seeing very many of the old kind.

That said, you can improve your chances even more by using the browser extension "HTTPS Everywhere" from the EFF. If a site has both http and https but defaults to the http version, this browser will force it to the https. I think browsers are incorporating this feature as well.


Posted by:

Robert
14 Oct 2020

We have been using SurfEasy as our VPN for about two or three years. My wife is from Europe so we use it to watch foreign TV and some entertainment shows. No problems, without the VPN we get the message that the content is not allowed in our area.


Posted by:

A.N.
13 Sep 2021

You should NEVER use a VPN service which is based in 14 Eyes, 5 Eyes or 9 Eyes countries. This is why : https://restoreprivacy.com/5-eyes-9-eyes-14-eyes/


Posted by:

Isla Lewis
26 Nov 2021

PureVPN is offering 88% off on early black Friday at just $1.33 per month with multiple features such as 6500+ servers in more than 98 locations, split tunnelling, internet kill switch, no-log privacy, 10 multi logins, 24/7 customer support and much more.


Posted by:

JOHN
27 Dec 2021

Thanks a lot Mr/Mrs/Miss A.N.
I was deeply impressed!!!!!
These people are heroes!!!!!


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