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Online Privacy and VPNs: What You Need To Know

News > Online Privacy and VPNs: What You Need To Know

Online Privacy and VPNs: What You Need To Know

As you no doubt heard, Congress recently upended rules that would have prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from selling details of your online habits to advertisers (details here).  Since that vote, many people have been advocating for the use of VPNs - virtual private networks - as a way to protect privacy. VPNs create a tunnel of sorts, preventing your ISP from tracking your online travels.
We'd love to offer you a quick and easy guide to VPNs, but frankly, there is no such thing. There are too many pros and cons, options and variables to consider. So instead we've rounded up some basic advice from knowledgeable, trusted sources. We're posting excerpts, but we strongly recommend clicking the links and reading the full articles. They will help you begin to understand what VPNs can and can't do, and sort out what steps you cane take now that the online privacy landscape has changed.

When using a VPN, you're making your Internet traffic pass through the VPN provider's servers before reaching your destination on the Internet. Your ISP will see that you're connecting to a VPN provider, but won't be able to see what you're ultimately connecting to. This is important to understand because you're exposing your entire Internet activity to the VPN provider and shifting your trust from the ISP to the VPN.
VPNs can see, modify, and log your Internet traffic. Many VPN providers make promises to not log your traffic and to take other privacy protective measures, but it can be hard to verify this independently since these services are built on closed platforms. For example, a recent study found that up to 38% of VPN apps available for Android contained some form of malware or spyware.
Simply searching the Web for "VPN" and "review" is hardly the best vetting approach, as a great many VPN companies offer "affiliate" programs that pay people a commission for each new customer they help sign up. ... Affiliate programs often create a perverse incentive for unscrupulous marketers to do things like manufacture phony VPN reviews by the virtual truckload, reviews that are aimed at steering as many people as possible to signing up with the service and earning them commissions.
Also, good luck figuring out who owns and operates many of these companies. Again, from the admittedly few instances in which I've attempted to determine exactly who or what is at the helm of a specific VPN provider, I can say that this has not been a particularly fruitful endeavor.
My bar for choosing a VPN provider has more to do with selecting one that makes an effort to ensure its customers understand how to use the service securely and safely, and to manage their customers' expectations about the limitations of using the service. Those include VPN companies that take the time to explain seemingly esoteric but important concepts, such as DNS and IPv6 leaks, and whether they keep any logs of customer activity.
An improperly configured VPN could potentially give others direct access to your private local LAN, which is likely significantly more dangerous than shady people sniffing your traffic at the coffee shop.
Some VPNs use the outdated PPTP VPN protocol, which is fundamentally insecure. Better options include IPSec (LibreSwan and StrongSwan, which are actively maintained), L2TP/IPSec, IKEv2, or OpenVPN. Among these alternatives, IPsec can be set up without installing extra software, but some believe it was either compromised or intentionally weakened by the NSA. OpenVPN is more secure but can be more difficult to set up and requires third-party software. It also needs to be configured correctly. Recent research by High-Tech Bridge found that 90 percent of SSL VPNs tested use insecure or outdated encryption.
While using a VPN, you might find that you can't connect to all the sites and services you're used to using. Netflix, for example, tries to block all VPNs to prevent people from accessing content not licensed in their home countries. Others sites may block particular VPN providers used by malicious hackers or criminals to cover their tracks. It can be hard to tell if you can't access a particular site because you've misconfigured your VPN software, the site is down, or if a company has blocked your VPN provider from accessing a site.
Tor, privacy advocates' favorite browsing software, tries to anonymize your internet use by routing your traffic through multiple servers around the world. It's free and, since it's an open source project tied to no company, at least partially solves the trust problem. But it's more complex to set up, typically slows down your connection speeds, and malicious Tor servers do exist. Many sites and services also block Tor. Regardless, neither VPNs nor Tor would protect you from software like Carrier IQ that tracks what you do locally.
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