How Viable are VPNs for your Online Privacy Needs?

In a recent piece on internet privacy legislation, Quandary Peak’s editorial team addressed the Congressional vote in March to overturn Obama-era internet privacy laws. In short, the new law gives telecommunications companies greater flexibility in how they can track, collect, and sell customer data. From a consumer standpoint, the implications of this legislation may largely depend on one’s Internet Service Provider (ISP)’s specific policies – and whether those policies may change as a result of the new law.

In reality, a majority of consumers will be unaware and/or indifferent to this shifting landscape in online privacy rules. But for those increasingly concerned about the issue, part of the narrative has shifted to whether VPNs (virtual private networks) can be a potential solution for restoring a lost layer of privacy.

VPNs have long been used by businesses to allow employees in remote/foreign locations to connect to a business’s private computer network. VPNs have steadily become more mainstream for private citizens, but remain unfamiliar to a vast swath of internet users. This unfamiliarity begs a number of questions: what, exactly, are VPNs? What are their advantages and disadvantages? Are any VPNs a cut above the rest? And, if a person is concerned about their online privacy, is a VPN an adequate solution?

What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN), and How Does it Work?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a service that allows a user to connect to the internet over a public network as if it were a private network. A common analogy is to consider a tunnel that links a user’s computer directly to a server operated by the VPN provider. When a request is sent for information (like entering a website address), it is ‘funneled’ through the VPN’s secure connection, and the information is sent back through the same private connection. This process encrypts the information, shielding it from anyone on a public network, including ISPs (internet service providers).

Using a VPN has a few distinct advantages for a consumer seeking greater online privacy, the most notable of which is the lack of information it reveals to a third party who may be monitoring your web activity. In other words, because VPNs cloak browsing information from ISPs, it generally means that ISPs cannot peer-in on your browsing habits—all they can see is a connection to a VPN server. This can be particularly useful for anyone connecting to the internet over a public Wi-Fi connection, such as in a café or a hotel, where data collection policies and service providers are often unclear.

VPNs are also notable because they allow users to bypass geolocation blocks – for most users, this means the ability to access region-specific content on streaming services like Hulu or Netflix by hiding their true location.

For all the benefits available, however, VPNs remain far from perfect. Because a VPN functions by routing a user’s internet connection through the VPN provider’s connection—while encrypting data along the way—broadband speeds usually take a significant hit. Modern computing has lessened some of the impact, and choosing a provider in close proximity to a user’s geographic location can mitigate some of the effects. But a decline in performance is still noticeable; the The New York Times reporter Brian X. Chen described download speeds on his Mac “dropp[ing] about 85 percent after connecting to F-Secure’s Freedome VPN service, and by 50 percent when connect[ing] to another VPN service called Private Internet Access.”

An additional downside is cost – VPN providers typically require a monthly or yearly fee for use. While these prices mostly hover below $10.00/month, adding an additional cost on top of paying for broadband service with an ISP is not necessarily a priority for some internet users.

Are some better than others?

Hundreds of VPNs exist, with many specializing in a particular area, so there are a wide variety of options available. Runa Sandvik, a director of information security for The New York Times, recommends scrutinizing privacy policies to select a trustworthy VPN, and suggests F-Secure’s Freedome for this reason. PC Magazine offered a range of choices in their recent “Best VPN Service of 2017” feature, with IPVanish VPN and NordVPN being the winners for general users. TechRadar’s “Best VPN Services of 2017” list also recommends different VPNs for different needs, including Hotspot Shield for browsing online and VyprVPN for performance and security.

Are VPNs Worth It?

VPNs are a viable—but by no means foolproof—solution for maintaining your online privacy. They can hide information from your ISP, but independent web companies like Google or Facebook can also track your browsing habits using cookies. Other web experts note that ads are also insidious; they carry malware, which can be used to monitor your activity. The broadband speed issues may finally be too inhibitive for most casual users to ignore.

However, a user that installs a combination of a solid VPN service with an ad blocker like AdBlock may serve as an adequate, cover-all-the-bases privacy solution for most users. To mitigate speed issues, users can also turn the VPN on and off according to the task at hand – working on a café’s public Wi-Fi connection means activating the VPN, while downloading a large file at the office means keeping it off. While imperfect, a VPN has some worthwhile functionality for internet users trying to enhance online privacy.

Quandary Peak Research

Based in Los Angeles, Quandary Peak Research provides software litigation consulting and expert witness services. We rapidly analyze large code bases, design documents, performance and usage statistics, and other data to answer technical questions about the structure and behavior of software systems.

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