Personal VPN: An Essential Privacy Tool

When the Internet was in its infancy, people guarded their privacy by making sure that no one was looking over their shoulder while surfing. The modern Internet landscape is much different today as the primary de facto business model seems to be personal and aggregate data collection.  Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, DoubleClick, Epsilon, Acxiom, and literally thousands of others are constantly collecting data about your surfing habits.  The websites you visit, the surveys you fill out, the emails and text you send, the things you search for, the products you buy, the time you stay on a site or even a page, the hobbies you have, your location, and how many hours you spend online.  All this is fertile data for an industry that has been around for longer than you think.  The digital age has allowed the sheer volume of data that is collected about each of us to grow exponentially.  Having a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can help to limit the volume of data these companies collect about you by encrypting it and masking your IP address.  This will help protect your privacy while surfing the Internet.

Privacy

The simple truth is that you have very little privacy when you are online.  Imagine a few strangers peering over your shoulder, taking notes as you surf the web, with vague promises to aggregate and anonymize their findings so that they can not be traced directly back to you and you’ve got a more realistic picture of the way the Internet operates.  One of the easiest and most effective ways to claw back your privacy is to use a VPN service.  Interest in these services has grown dramatically in the wake of Snowden’s NSA revelations and the constant headlines about customer data theft (Adobe, LinkedIn, Sony, Target, etc.).

How A VPN Service Works

A personal VPN service provides you with access to its private network.  It creates a secure tunnel using one of the accepted tunneling protocols: OpenVPN, SSTP, L2TP, PPTP, or IKeV2 between you and the server of choice on its network.  It then encrypts all the data sent through this tunnel so that if anyone intercepts it, they will not be able to read it.  Additionally, it assigns your computer an IP address associated with the server that you are connected to which masks your true IP address and location.  It then makes website requests on your behalf to the Internet and sends the encrypted response back to you.  This hides your Internet browsing habits from your search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.), your Internet Service Provider, or anyone else who might be sniffing your data.  This helps to anonymize you when you are browsing the web.  Finally, since all data between you and the VPN server is encrypted it helps to keep you from becoming a victim of identity theft through cyber-hacking.

We have looked at what a VPN is and how it works.  Now let us take a look at some of the reasons you might want to use a VPN.

Extra Security from Cyber-Criminals

Where consumers should really focus their attention is in companies that they have probably never heard of like Epsilon, and Acxiom. These are the two largest players in the data brokerage arena.  Acxiom brags that it has around 1,500 pieces of information (what they call elements) on more than 200 million Americans and 700 million people worldwide.  What is more disturbing than this massive amount of data that Acxiom has collected, is that they have used it to classify every single one of us into 70 socioeconomic categories.  They routinely sell this data, as elements and lists to other businesses to help them “mitigate their customer risk”.   It should also be pointed out that both Epsilon and Acxiom have had data breaches (EpsilonAcxiom) in the past.

In addition to the legitimate data brokers that collect information, there are more nefarious groups and individuals who are also looking to intercept your personal information.  These include criminal organizations looking to steal your financial information and individuals looking to steal your identity.  Case in point, from February-May of 2015 a criminal enterprise accessed 500,000 taxpayer accounts and caused the shutdown of the IRS app Get Transcript which allowed users to access previous years tax return records.  What makes this unique is that it was not a cyber-security data breach in the strict sense.  The criminals accessed the returns the same way any other legitimate taxpayer would.  They authenticated themselves with personal data that only the taxpayer should have known.  These included names, Social Security numbers, current addresses, pet names, and other personal and financial information they had gotten from other sources.

Command Center

In 2014, data theft reached record levels.  According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, there were a record high 783 data breaches last year, a 27.5% increase from 2013.  The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), defines identity theft to include three general types of incidents:

  • unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing account
  • unauthorized use or attempted use of personal information to open a new account
  • misuse of personal information for a fraudulent purpose.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics there were 16.6 million people in the United States who reported being victims of identity theft in 2012.

The VPN server acts as a buffer between your computer and the Internet, ensuring that all data you transmit and receive is safe and encrypted.  Additionally, since the IP address that advertisers, data brokers, and criminals see is shared between many users, it makes it harder for them to tie browsing habits and the data associated with them to individual users.  Therefore, using a personal VPN service can help limit the amount of information data brokers (legitimate and otherwise) can gather about you and lessen your chance of identity theft.

Keep Your ISP from Monitoring You

There have been some instances of ISPs throttling (restricting) bandwidth, particularly when they observe bittorrent traffic. Also, there has been concern that many ISPs may throttle traffic from major content distributors, like Netflix, and this is part of what the net neutrality or open Internet debate is about. Additionally, ISPs have also been known to reduce connection speeds when customers are downloading or uploading large amounts of data although most deny it.  It has also been observed and reported that some ISPs throttle or shape their traffic more than others.

NSA Data Center

Whether you know it or not, most ISPs track the IP addresses their customer’s contact, which means that they know the web sites that you are visiting and keep a history of your internet traffic for some period of time. For the most part, the ISPs are just collecting metadata (ports used and IP addresses).  With that being said, they have granular capabilities that enable them to drill down on content.  Essentially, they have the capability to see the content on the pages that you have visited or what you write in your emails, but generally don’t.  Check your ISPs terms of service and privacy policy for specific details of what they do with this data.  Additionally, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a tutorial on how NSA spying works has revealed to the world how our personal, business and other data is being tracked.  Something else to consider is the length of time ISPs retain customer logs.

Since a VPN encrypts the traffic between your computer and the VPN server and transfers it across a secure tunnel, your ISP is no longer able to see the sites you visit or read the emails you send out.  Consequently, you no longer have to worry about them keeping a history of your Internet surfing habits and possibly being compelled to provide it to other authorities in the future.  Additionally since they can not spy on your internet usage, they no longer have a reason to shape your traffic or reduce your connection speed.

Anonymize Your Search History

I am sure that it comes as no surprise to most people that Google tracks and remembers your search queries to improve your Internet experience and give their advertisers a better way to find you. You have probably experienced this when you searched for an item on the Internet. Later when you are surfing the Internet, you notice advertising about the item you searched for.  Facebook also collects information as you travel from site to site even if you do not log into your Facebook account.  They do this by “tracking cookies” embedded in the “Like” social icons found on many websites.  Google and Facebook are probably two of the most prolific and best known information gatherers on the Internet.  However, they are far from the only ones.  Many websites track you as you surf the Internet.

Having a personal VPN service can guard against Google tracking your search history by masking your true IP address with one from the region the VPN server is in.  Since only the VPN server address is seen by Google and Facebook, searches and browsing history are not tracked directly back to you.  This helps protect your identity, location, and allows you to be more anonymous.  Also, since these addresses are generally shared by many users, it makes it nearly impossible for them to track the searches and browsing history back to just one person.

Bypass School Firewalls

So you want to be able to access your personal social homepage, stream Netflix, or access another restricted site from behind your university or corporate firewall but the IT administrator has placed restrictions against connecting to these sites or possibly ports that you need to access them. What can you do about this?

College Firewall

A VPN does what it’s name implies and creates a virtual tunnel through the Internet restrictions imposed by the school or corporate firewall.  All data sent from your device is encrypted through this tunnel without the imposed restrictions.  As long as your school does not block the port used by the VPN which is typically the case since it is usually port 443, the port used for SSL Internet transactions (sites whose URL begins with HTTPS).  Therefore, having a personal VPN service allows you to easily bypass most school and corporate firewalls.

Protect Your Identity and Location

Most of you know that each device and website on the Internet is assigned an IP address.  Your ISP assigns you one when you subscribe to the service.  This address can be uniquely traced back to you much like an address in a phone book can lead to your house.  This IP address can also be used to track your general location and other information.  Also, as I previously stated, every website you visit has a unique IP address.  This allows your ISP and other nefarious individuals who know how to do it to monitor every website you visit and store the information without your permission.  This information may be stored for a long time.

Having a personal VPN service can guard against others tracking your browsing history by masking your true IP address with one from the region the VPN server is in.  Since only the VPN server address is seen on the Internet, it can not be tied back to you.  This helps protect your identity, location, and allows you to be more anonymous.  Also since these addresses are usually shared by multiple users, it is not possible to record any one persons browsing history.  Finally, since the data between your device and the VPN server is encrypted and sent through a secure tunnel, your ISP is not able to observe and record your browsing history.

Use Wi-Fi Hotspots

Although most don’t realize it, Wi-Fi hotspots, whether paid or free, are in no way secure. They literally broadcast all of your data “over the air” with typically no security. This can include your e-mail, IM messages, web searches, and any other personal and even financial data sent or received over the wireless network unless it is sent using a secure protocol like HTTPS.  This makes it easy for anyone to “sniff” and capture your data without your knowledge.  Due to the ease of the crime, and the fact that many Wi-Fi hotspots are typically frequented by more affluent people, they are a tantalizing place for cyber-criminals to lurk.

Free WiFi

This issue is primarily a problem of public Wi-Fi hotspots like McDonalds, Starbucks, and hotels you might be staying at which generally have a completely open wireless network available for patrons to join and use.  These networks usually have no data encryption and since they are open to everyone make easy targets for internet hackers using network packet sniffers.  In some cases, such as hotels, the Wi-Fi may actually use a password to prevent abuse by users who are not actually staying at the hotel, but those are only slightly more secure because the password is shared with everyone who stays there, and is rarely changed so acquiring it is a trivial matter.  Additionally, Wi-Fi password hackers can be easily found on the internet.

Another common tactic is something called the “evil twin” attack where the cyber-criminal sets up a laptop with an open Wi-Fi connection at a seemingly legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot.  You do not pay as much attention as you should and instead of connecting to the legitimate connection you connect to his Wi-Fi.  Normally he will have found out the name of the legitimate connection and name his similarly to fool you!  Now although everything seems fine, you are actually sending all of your data through a hacker’s laptop.

The encryption offered by a VPN is your best defense against any of these three scenarios because it is improbable that they would be able to penetrate the secure tunnel provided by the VPN.  However if by some miracle they did intercept your data, it would only appear as gibberish and they would not be able to read it.

Conduct Personal Business While Traveling

When you use your employer’s VPN, typically all your online activity is tracked by default.  Also, using your employer’s bandwidth and IP addresses for personal business is likely to be a violation of your company’s policies.  So to still be able to conduct personal business when you are traveling or visiting other countries, you need a personal VPN service so that you can be sure that all of your information is encrypted and remains secure.

Use the Internet on Public Networks

The dangers from connecting over public networks are not limited to just wireless networks.  For example, when you connect to the Internet from a hotel room, even over a wired connection, your data stream can be captured by any other user of that network.  Is the guy in room 608 really just a guy traveling for business or is he a cyber-criminal looking for his next target?  You really have no way of knowing.  Worse,  since most public Internet connections (hotels, RV parks, Internet cafes, etc.) usually don’t have the same security in place you would have in an office or even at your own home, you will not find out until it’s too late.  Why take the chance when using your own personal VPN service can remove any doubt.

Access Geographically Restricted Services

Streaming media providers like Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, and many others geo-restrict their content by IP address.  For instance, the library of content for Netflix depends on the country that you are trying to access it from as determined by the IP address of the machine trying to access it.  Similarly, Hulu is available in only the US and Japan and has different libraries of content for each.  Lastly BBC iPlayer is only available to those who live in the UK.  What if I live in a country or am visiting a country where access to these streaming providers is restricted?

BBC iPlayer

By using a personal VPN and accessing a VPN server in the country where the content is not restricted, I will be able to stream content from the provider because the VPN will give me an IP address from the country I connect in, thus making the service provider think I am in a region where the content is not restricted.   In addition to this, I will be able to access the content from anywhere in the world as long as I have an Internet connection.  In the case of Netflix and Hulu, I will also need a valid subscription but could view multiple content libraries.

Unblock Social Websites

Iran, China. North Korea, and some other countries block social websites and other applications to restrict their populations access to some content and also as a form of protectionism for their our industries.  Consequently, if you live in one of these countries or are just visiting and want to access some of these sites,  a VPN is your best choice for bypassing these blocks.  A VPN service will create a secure tunnel to a server in another country where the site is not blocked and provide you with an IP address from there.  This will let you access the site.  It will then send the encrypted content from the site back though the tunnel to your machine keeping it from being detected by government surveillance.  Some VPNs will even provide “stealth” technology specifically designed to obfuscate the data making it harder to detect.

Bypass Internet Censorship

Many countries censor some types of Internet content.  Some content is censored by governments for societal, moral, religious, political, and numerous other reasons.  No matter the reason, A VPN will let you view the uncensored content by establishing a secure tunnel to a country where no censorship of the content is performed and providing you an IP address there so that you can access it.  It will then encrypt and send the uncensored content back to your machine where you can view it.  Since the content is encrypted through a secure tunnel back to you it is kept from prying eyes.

Encrypt VoIP Traffic

Often, ISPs and governments block VoIP applications like Skype and Google Talk so that their users will use local telephone services which are many times more expensive.  A personal VPN can be used to bypass these restrictions on VoIP by encrypting the connection and sending it over a connection that normal Internet traffic flows across.  Since the ISP cannot tell that the resultant traffic is an IP phone call, they should not block it.  Many users in other countries use VPNs to make cheap and sometimes free international VoIP calls by taking advantage of VPN servers in other countries.  A VPN not only unblocks the VoIP connection but since it also encrypts it.  This makes sure your communication is safe and secure from government surveillance agencies and hackers.

Conclusions

A VPN service creates a secure tunnel between you and a VPN server on its network.  It then encrypts all traffic between you and their network across this tunnel and acts as a middleman by handling all transactions with the internet on an IP address shared with other users.  Therefore, using a personal VPN can help to protect your right to privacy, bolster your anonymity, and make it harder to track your online activity while allowing you to securely surf the Internet.  Below is a summary of the uses which make a VPN an absolutely essential tool for anyone who uses the internet.

  • You desire extra security from cyber-criminals and identity thiefs.
  • You don’t want your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or owner of a network you’re connecting through, to log, monitor, and/or control what you do online.
  • You don’t want search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, and Bing recording and storing every Internet search you perform…..potentially forever.
  • You want to bypass school and corporate firewalls.
  • You want to hide your IP address so you can protect your identity and location.
  • You use Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • You have a company-issued VPN but don’t wish to use it for personal business.
  • You use the Internet at hotels or other shared hospitality or public networks.
  • You live in, or are visiting, a country that blocks Skype, Facebook, Twitter, or other Internet services.
  • You live in, or are visiting, a country that engages in Internet censorship or monitoring of content.
  • You wish to encrypt your VoIP traffic or avoid restrictions.
  • You want to use a service or application that is geographically restricted by IP address.
  • You simply desire extra privacy and security and want to round out your firewall and anti-virus protection for a complete security solution.

As you can see, there are many reasons for using a VPN but they all boil down to one thing.  You want to protect and control your online privacy.