Will a VPN Boost Your Online Privacy?
A confused AskBob reader says, “Do I really 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, what they can (and cannot) do, and find out if you need one...
What is a VPN?
Back in the 1980s when I worked at IBM, there was an "all hands" meeting at the Poughkeepsie NY site, where the mainframe computers were manufactured. One of the IBM vice presidents was talking about the future direction of the company and said: "I just found out what a paradigm is, and now I need a new one!" I hope today, you'll learn what a VPN is, and find out if you need one.
“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, Proton VPN, and SurfShark.
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.
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
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.
Before you consider using a VPN, I recommend that you read this article from RestorePrivacy, which discusses privacy concerns related to global surveillance conducted by the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes surveillance alliances. The article alleges that the governments represented by these alliances work together to collect and share data, and further cautions against using "secure email services", VPNs and "private search engines" based in these countries. The links I gave above came from their list of recommended services: NordVPN (Panama), SurfShark (Netherlands), ProtonVPN (Switzerland), ExpressVPN (British Virgin Islands)
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, to allow you to access your home computer securely. TOR is another option that I discussed in Here's How to Boost Your Internet Privacy.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question about VPNs below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 4 Nov 2022
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Will a VPN Boost Your Online Privacy? (Posted: 4 Nov 2022)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved