Occasionally, there are moments when niche tech topics spill over into public awareness. For me, that usually comes with a feeling of excitement and vindication, like when the Serial podcast exploded and everyone was like “Oh, you can have STORIES play in your head no matter what you are doing…” and I was like “Yes! This is the ‘podcast’ thing I kept pushing on you ten years ago!”
Next up on the horizon in terms of tech-trending-to-the-mainstream: VPNs. A virtual private network, or VPN, is basically a proxy that prevents others from tracking which sites and services you access on the internet. And the reason we are talking about VPNs right now is because of a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution signed in April 2017 that rolled back a privacy rule created by the FCC last year. The FCC rule was supposed to regulate the ability of ISPs to collect your internet browsing data and sell it for marketing purposes.
The rollback of that FCC rule is controversial, of course. But what I think really struck a nerve with the public is this realization:
“What? My ISP can see and record what I’m looking at on the internet?”
Yes. They totally can. And this has been true since the dawn of the internet.
The technical aspect of this shouldn’t be a huge shocker. It’s not much different than your phone company knowing what phone numbers you are dialing. They kind of need to have that information in order to provide you service. But the thought of an ISP actually tracking and analyzing your internet activity probably never crossed your mind.
So, whether you are for or against the regulations barring ISPs from collecting your data for profit, the fact stands: ISPs can and do watch where you go on the internet.
That is unless you use a VPN.
What is a VPN and What Does It Do?
A VPN is an effective and legal way to obfuscate your internet activity.
Without a VPN, your ISP would essentially have a log of all the servers or websites you access. They know which websites you visit and how long you spent visiting them. They can see that you were on Netflix or Hulu or that you visit the FarmersOnly.com dating site every day on your lunch break or ShadyOffBrandDrugStore.com when your kids are sleeping.
With a VPN however, all your ISP would see is you accessing that one VPN service. After that, they have no way of knowing where you went. The VPN serves as a proxy between you, your ISP, and the internet. The traffic that gets passed between you and your VPN service is encrypted, so only you can see what’s in it. And if you choose a quality VPN provider, they don’t keep any logs of your connection or web traffic history.
This is called an encrypted tunnel.
When you use the internet through an encrypted tunnel, your ISP can’t see where you go on the internet anymore. For example, imagine your ISP as a surveillance helicopter watching you walk the streets of New York. They could see every building you go in and come out of. But imagine if you went to a subway station and then began traveling underground. All they would know is which subway station you entered. The VPN is the subway station. The subway is your encrypted tunnel.
Should I Be Using a VPN?
Chances are, you’ve been using the internet from your home for years without a VPN. And if so, you’ve been using the internet from your phone, at coffee shops and airports, and at work without a VPN. As far as you know, nothing bad has happened. So, that raises a good question:
Should you be using a VPN?
My answer would be yes. Like you, I’ve been using the internet without VPN protection for years. But I’ve started using one recently. I’m using a VPN now for two big reasons:
- I’m more aware of the threats and implications of using the internet without anonymity.
- It’s insanely easy to use a VPN all the time.
It’s a little bit like wearing a seat belt. Just because you’ve been riding around without a seat belt on and haven’t been in a fatal car accident doesn’t mean seat belts are unnecessary. It means you’ve been lucky.
Or, when it comes to abuse of your personal internet usage data, it could mean that it’s been happening and you just don’t know about it.
The fact is, browsing the internet is unsafe at any speed, in terms of privacy. A VPN is no guarantee of privacy and anonymity. But it’s one layer of protection that you can control.
Now that you know, you should do something about it.
Which VPN Should I Use?
There are many private proxy services, web browsing anonymizers, and personal VPN services out there. Some are paid, some are free. It’s in your best interest to shop around a bit.
As you do, though, I want to caution you against one thing: avoid the free VPNs.
I know, I know, it seems unjust to have to pay yet another monthly bill for something you’ve been doing for free for years.
But hear me out.
The thing you should know by now is that nothing on the internet is truly free. Whether it’s Facebook, Google, or a free VPN proxy service, these companies aren’t providing these services out of the goodness of their hearts. They need to make a profit somehow, and collecting and analyzing your browsing data is how most of them do it.
If you use a free VPN, know that it is highly likely that they are collecting and selling your data. This is obviously no better than your ISP doing it. In fact, it’s probably worse, because at least you know who your ISP is and at least you have a phone number where you can reach them. The same can’t be said for some dude in eastern Europe who coded that free VPN application that you just installed on your PC. (See also: This investigation from Motherboard which uncovered a fake VPN scam.) Trust me, don’t use a free VPN service. It’s not worth the disaster what could become your life.
The VPN service that I use and that everyone at groovyPost uses is called Private Internet Access or PIA for short. It’s kind of a boring name, but that’s not a bad thing: it does exactly what it says on the tin. It costs me about $3 a month and I get to use it on all my devices: my Windows PC, my wife’s Macbook, my iPhone, my Chromebook, etc.
It’s a very small price to pay for the privacy I deserve on the internet.
Oh, and one other thing: free VPNs can be monstrously slow. When you use a VPN, you are bouncing your traffic off another server somewhere in the world. Your internet speeds are bottlenecked by that proxy server you are going through. With a paid VPN, they’ll usually advertise a specific upload/download speed that you’ll get with their service and work to meet it. With PIA, however, they have over 3000 servers in over 25 countries. It’s extremely fast and secure. No shocker they are the leader in the industry which is why we recommend them to our readers.
But wait, there’s more…
Okay, just kidding, I know this is starting to sound like a sales pitch. That’s not my intent here. This isn’t about convincing you to sign up for one VPN or another. The thing I’m trying to get across is that you should use some sort of VPN or encrypted tunnel. It’s a very small shift in the way you use your tech, but it has some real benefits. Before I wrote this article, I talked to Steve—who is something of an internet privacy fanatic—about if and why he uses a VPN and he unleashed a torrent of reasons why everyone should install a VPN today! It goes beyond internet privacy, but that’s obviously numero uno.
Top Benefits (I could think of…) of Using a VPN
- Secure browsing when at Starbucks or another public WiFi spot. Public wireless networks are highly vulnerable. The fact is, when you connect to a Public WiFi or Hotel network, you have no idea who else is on that network and listening in on your unprotected traffic. A VPN protects you from that vulnerability so you can use the internet as if you were in the safety of your home. In fact, no one here at groovyPost uses public WiFi without a VPN.
- Private web surfing at home and at work. The home browsing aspect is what we’ve covered up until this point. But what about work? When you use your work computer for personal web browsing, one could argue that you should have no expectation of privacy. You are using your company’s IT equipment and their ISP, so it makes sense for them to peek at what you’re doing to make sure it’s not a misuse of company time and resources. But there should be a line. Should the IT admin be able to see which news websites you visit at lunch? Should your manager be able to see you logging on to banking websites or sending personal emails? While a VPN won’t stop things like keyloggers or someone standing over your shoulder and looking at your screen, it does add a layer of personal privacy when you are away from your home PC.
- VPN protection for all devices. Pricing and licensing will vary from provider to provider, but the VPN service I use lets me install the client on all my devices for one monthly fee. That is, I get to use the VPN on my iPhone, my Chromebook, and my home PC without paying for each device. It’s very handy and best of all, it ingrains the habit of always being on a VPN. I get to bring my protection with me everywhere I go. If my whole family uses it, that breaks down to less than a dollar per person a month for all of our devices.
- View websites from different cities or countries. If you have a website and you want to see how the rest of the world sees it, you can use your VPN to browse the web as if you were located in a different country. This is handy to see different localization settings kick in. It can also be kind of fun to see ads pop up in Japanese when you’re VPN-ing in from a server in Japan.
- Use the internet as if you were in your home country. Using a VPN to mimic being in a different country works the other way around, too. There are some services that won’t work if you’re not in your home country. For example, AT&T offers WiFi calling when you’re in the U.S. If you are traveling abroad, you can install the PIA mobile app and VPN back into the U.S. and then use WiFi calling on your iPhone and avoid those big international calling fees.
- Prevent your data from being sold for marketing purposes. We’ve already talked about the ISP tracking concern. But the same goes for the Google AdSense ads you see and the Facebook ads you see and pretty much every other marketing machination you come across on the web. Even if you never tell a marketer who you are or accept some kind of user agreement, marketers create “shadow profiles” of you and your browsing history based on your IP address and other data they can track to your identity and demographic. With a VPN, your IP is anonymized, and this makes it much harder for marketers to keep tabs on you.
- Set up private internet on all your internet-connected devices. Computers and phones are one thing. But what about all the other devices that use the internet? An ISP could look at your internet activity and tell that you own an Amazon Echo Dot, an Apple TV, a Samsung SmartTV, a Nest thermostat, a Foscam webcam, etc., based on the servers they communicate with. With PIA, you can install a certificate on your router that lets you use the VPN service for all your internet-connected devices. This is the best way to get VPN protection on devices that don’t support VPN clients. Yes, I know, this is a little more complex. Stay tuned for a follow-up how-to explaining how to setup VPN on your wireless routers.
- Use location-based services wherever you are. For a long time, if you lived in Chicago, you couldn’t watch the Cubs play on MLB.TV because of blackout areas enforced by the MLB and the cable companies. That’s going away, but other streaming services often impose similarly frustrating restrictions. With a VPN, you can change your location to circumvent location-based restrictions. For example, let’s say you’re originally from London or traveling to the US on business. Simply setup a VPN tunnel to a London-based server and watch BBC TV as if you were in the country.
- Protection from hackers. A VPN is a secure, authenticated connection. This means that you only get internet traffic from servers that you meant to contact. Some VPN services go the extra mile and protect you from known malicious websites, similar to services like OpenDNS.
A quick caveat to some of the tips above: If you do use VPN with location-based services, make sure you’re not in violation of your terms of service—some companies specifically bar this practice.
Why Not Just Use Incognito Mode?
Incognito mode or private browsing mode doesn’t come close to the same level of protection that you get from a VPN. If you’ve ever read the disclaimer on the Google Chrome incognito tab, that explains it:
You’ve gone incognito
Pages you view in incognito tabs won’t stick around in your browser’s history, cookie store, or search history after you’ve closed all of your incognito tabs. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be kept.
However, you aren’t invisible. Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your internet service provider, or the websites you visit.
In other words, incognito mode is great for hiding your browsing history from people who use the same computer as you. And it also helps keep the clutter out of your search history and browser history (for example, if you want to let someone use your computer for an afternoon and you don’t want them overriding all your saved passwords and frequently visited websites). But it won’t stop your ISP or employer from spying on you.
Again, the notion of paying for a service to basically give you what you always thought you had (privacy on the internet) doesn’t sound like much fun. But it’s a very good habit to get into. The landscape of internet privacy rules and regulations and marketing tactics is changing quickly. It’s changing faster than any of us can keep up with. It behooves you to add best practices for protecting your personal and private information, your financial information, and your family’s privacy as you become aware of them. Just like you’ve been slowly trained to use strong passwords and enable two-factor authentication, using a VPN will soon be one of those common sense practices used by all prudent internet denizens.
I highly encourage you to start using a VPN today. Sure, we like Private Internet Access from our personal testing, however, there are many players out there. Just stay away from free…
- The government just gave your ISP even more power. Here’s how to fight back from Recode
- Snooper’s Charter: Protect Yourself from the Investigatory Powers Act from Private Internet Access
- Three Myths the Telecom Industry is Using to Convince Congress to Repeal the FCC’s Privacy Rules, Busted from the Electronic Frontier Foundation
- Why Use a VPN? from McAfee Blogs
- Post-FCC Privacy Rules, Should You VPN? from Krebs on Security