27 August 2019

When it comes to your online activity, it’s safe to say that someone, somewhere, probably knows exactly what you’re up to. Whether it’s your Internet Service Provider (ISP) sending you a cease and desist letter for illegally downloading Avengers Endgame from The Pirate Bay, or an online marketer targeting you with ads based on what you searched for on Amazon Prime day, your cyber shenanigans are likely being monitored, logged and tracked by someone.

For precisely this reason, millions of internet users have signed up to various Virtual Private Network (VPN) services that promise to obfuscate their online activity. Depending on the service you use, it’s possible to make it appear that you are located anywhere in the world and keep your browsing data more secure while suffering just a small dip in internet speeds for the privilege. But how true is this? Can you really trust your VPN to keep your online browsing private? According to a number of experts, that depends on which service you use.

VPNS can stop ISPs from profiting from your web traffic data
According to Jerome Joseph from the Center for Democracy and Technology, the popularity of VPNs exploded following the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to roll back broadband privacy rules in 2017. The repeal gave ISPs the right to sell traffic-related data to the highest bidder, without the consent of their users. “People usually don’t trust their ISP,” Joseph said in a recent interview with Yahoo. VPNs are an effective way of protecting internet traffic from money-hungry ISPs who are more interested in their bottom line than their user’s right to privacy.

Not a silver bullet solution
However, according to Gennie Gebhart, associate director at the digital privacy advocacy group, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), VPN services are less of a ‘silver bullet solution’ than companies would like you to think. VPN services simply “shift your risk,” she cautioned. A VPN still has to process your web traffic in order to protect it, so if you do plan to use one, you need to make sure it’s one you can trust.

No such thing as a free lunch
With plenty of free VPN options out there, such as the free VPN offered by the Opera web browser, it can be tempting to sign up for a free service. On this note, Joseph urges caution; “Your data is their product,” he advises. Most free VPN services that are advertised as ‘free’ are making money, in some way, from your personal data. Many popular VPN services run to around $10 per month, and, according to experts like Joseph and Gebhart, it’s a price worth paying to ensure that your data isn’t being sold or compromised.

Look for a ‘no-log’ VPN
Choosing the right VPN can be a challenge despite a range of free services, like VPN database That One Privacy Site, that can suggest the best one for your needs. Overall the best advice is to look for a VPN that doesn’t log your data, known as a ‘no-log’ VPN. Services that log your data simply aren’t safe to use. These logs can be susceptible to attacks and leaks. As the name suggests, a no-log VPN service (like Panama-based NordVPN) don’t log any data, so have nothing to reveal even if their servers are hacked or subpoenaed for information.

Location, location, location
Besides an ironclad ‘no-log’ policy, you also want to look at where the VPN’s headquarters or servers are located. If the VPN is based in a 5/9/14-Eyes country, the service could reveal your browsing activity to government agencies, even if it advertises itself as a ‘no-log’ service. Even if you choose a VPN in a favorable location, “the laws might change in the country,” cautions Gebhart. It pays to stay informed and up to date with the latest developments. 

Look for independent security audits
Knowing who to trust can be tough, so it’s always worth looking at services such as TunnelBear, and NordVPN that have consulted independent security firms and undergone unbiased audits. In 2016, TunnelBear hired the security firm Cure53 to test its sites and services for vulnerabilities. This not only helped TunnelBear bolster its’ own security but it helped earn trust from its users. While these audits are no guarantee of complete privacy, “They are a step in the right direction,” says Gebhart.

To VPN or not to VPN?
According to a recent report from WIRED, widespread adoption of the encrypted HTTPS security protocol has made the web far safer and has greatly reduced the need for a VPN service. HTTPS is in use by 65 percent of the world’s top million websites according to W3Techs, and an even safer protocol – HSTS – is gaining traction. What’s more, basic safe browsing techniques can do away with the need for a costly VPN service altogether. Privacy-focused web browsers such as Brave or private search engines such as DuckDuckGo can protect your data for free. Coupled with two-factor authentication and an up-to-date password manager to store your strong, unique passwords, and you’re all set for a more private, secure browsing future.

Happy browsing!

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