With monitoring of Internet access on the increase (thanks Congress) and the importance of privacy at an all-time high, I thought I’d explain what a VPN is, why you need one, and how to protect more of your privacy online.
Right now, when we use the Internet – surfing the web, sending email, etc. – a fair amount of what we do isn’t encrypted. Let’s use the analogy of the postal mail. Using the Internet today for most things is like sending postcards in the mail. You can read what’s on the postcard. The recipient can read what’s on the postcard. Anyone nosy who just stands around at the post office can read what’s on the postcard.
With regard to the current legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President, today, Internet Service Providers are technically capable of capturing and logging what we do when we connect to the Internet through them. However, they’re not allowed to do very much with the information under current law. When the legislation is signed into law by the President, they will be able to collect it and sell it.
You may say, well, what about all these services I use which are secure, like my bank, or Facebook, or Gmail? To return to the postal mail analogy, the current encryption technology takes your communications and puts them in an envelope. That keeps the nosy postman from reading what’s in the envelope, but he can still read where you’re sending mail to.
That information would still be for sale:
- Hey, Chris has a subscription to National Geographic Magazine.
- Hey, Chris is a member of this political organization.
- Hey, Chris gets mail from this healthcare organization.
You can see how even understanding who I’m receiving and sending messages to would be valuable, even if you can’t see the contents of the message. The nosy postman could use that information for advertising, for surveillance, for profiling, even for nefarious purposes.
When we talk about Internet Service Providers selling information, this is the kind of information they could sell even if the data we’re sending is encrypted. They may not see what’s in our secure connection to Facebook, but they know it’s to and from Facebook.
Now, consider all the sites and services we use every day. What kind of profile could we build, especially if we’re using laptops and tablets and smartphones all on the same home network? Unlike Google or Facebook, your Internet Service Provider sees everywhere you go; putting your browser into Private Browsing mode doesn’t alter their ability to track what addresses you type into your browser bar.
How a VPN Works
To continue the postal mail analogy, when we use a VPN, we effectively take all our mail, postcards and envelopes, and stuff it inside a locked box. Now, when the postman comes to pick up the mail, it’s just a large box. He doesn’t know anything other than how heavy the box is.
The VPN, in this analogy, takes all our postal mail and sends it from their mail facilities, which can be hundreds of anonymized locations around the Internet. This, combined with thousands of other users also using the service, makes it nearly impossible to determine who’s sending and receiving what.
Online, VPNs encrypt everything coming and going from our devices. They prohibit anyone from looking at what we’re asking for, what we’re searching for, what we’re watching, where we’re going online. The only places which know where we’re going are our destinations. (how much information we give organizations like Facebook is a topic for another time)
My Recommended VPN Choices
If you’re technically savvy and want to build your own, my recommended choice is Algo. You’ll need cloud hosting and a virtual private server; for that I recommend GoDaddy Cloud (a client of my employer).
If you have no desire to set up your own servers and such, my recommended consumer choice is NordVPN. It’s fast, it’s very easy to set up, and it’s strongly encrypted. Most important, NordVPN keeps no logs or tracking of its own; if asked by vendors, advertisers, or even law enforcement, all they can do is shrug their shoulders and politely apologize. They have no personal data to give. The best part is the cost – about US$5/month or less.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate of NordVPN and earn a small commission for sales purchased through me.
Choose whichever solution works best for you, but I strongly urge you to start protecting your privacy online. The governments of the world have no interest in your privacy. The companies of the world have an interest in snooping on you as much as possible. Only you can protect your privacy. Start today with a VPN.
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Also published on Medium.