Information is what the Internet is all about. This is good AND bad. We all use the net to gain easy access to information, from watching porn to conducting financial transactions and, some people work, resulting in an endless stream of information most of us never really think about.
Information is also what corporations and governments desire, and at times pay large amounts of money for, to build detailed user profiles for marketing and surveillance purposes. Facebook, one of the repeat offenders when it comes to taking user’s privacy seriously, knows more about you than your Mom and there is no way to delete that data even if you were to delete your user profile.
Anybody who wishes to gain access to that stream of information can do so with little knowledge or effort, just check out FireSheep, a Mac application allowing you to snoop on other people logged into the same Wifi spot the FireSheep user is, no technical skills required. Internet Service Providers and network admins anywhere along the route your information travels also have access to what you are doing. Sending an email (not encrypted) is no safer than dropping a postcard into the mail.
Certainly, we provide some private information voluntarily when we fill out forms, but much of it is gathered without our knowledge, hence without our consent. Additionally many people agree to website’s terms and conditions without actually reading those first, writing those companies a blank check to do with their information as they please.
It comes as no surprise that an increasing number of Internet users desire to better protect their personal information and VPNs are one of the tools used to accomplish this, TOR would be another. A VPN establishes a tunnel from your computer to the VPN providers servers, disguising your real Internet Protocol (IP) address from prying eyes and offering a public IP address for the world to see.
Generally this is a great idea, but it comes with some problems. While a VPN is a great way to hide your activities and identity from the public, your ISP, network administrators and governments, your VPN provider has full access to this information. The real question when using a VPN therefore is:
Do you trust your VPN provider to keep your information private?
The main and legal use for a VPN service is privacy, the privacy to surf the web from wherever to wherever without nosy governments, corporations or the person next to you at the coffee shop knowing about it. Then there are the questionably legal activities, such as file sharing, circumventing firewalls, accessing programs governments don’t want you to see, as well as watching geographically restricted materials, the London Olympics from the the US for example.
Why questionably legal?
Although the recording industry successfully branded file sharing as illegal, that is not the whole truth. There is this little mentioned fact that when I purchase a product I legally own it which entails certain rights. It is perfectly legal to lend my Faulty Towers Collection to a friend or neighbor. The same holds true for CDs and books. In the 1990’s that meant handing over a physical copy, today I can accomplish the same thing by sending a digital copy, and that is wherein the problem supposedly lies. But if that were all that is to this, then what was the purpose of a tape recorder?
Needless to say, there are outright illegal uses of VPNs, like accessing protected computer systems, defacing websites, stealing personal information etc… While I condemn these uses of VPNs, they are unavoidable, just as a gun can be used for personal protection or murder.
I am privacy conscious and protecting my personal information is important to me. I use a VPN whenever possible to reduce the risk of my activities being tracked and to expose as little information as possible to the public. Note that hiding your personal information online has nothing to do with performing illegal activities, an important distinction to make, which unfortunately many people get wrong.
However, before signing up for any VPN service read their terms and conditions carefully, especially the parts dealing with logging of information. You must know what information they log and for how long they keep those logs. Preferably, a VPN service provider should not log any user activity to protect themselves and the privacy of their customers. The next point to consider is where the company is located, as different countries have different laws and deal differently with requests for information. Lastly, it is up to you to decide if you trust the company to protect your privacy in case they receive requests from law enforcement to provide information.
Here is what to look at BEFORE signing up for a VPN provider:
- Where are they located? (Depending on your purpose, you might want to choose a provider outside the US, Canada and Western-Europe)
- What are their logging policies? (No logs are better than some, and if they log, the shorter the time they keep them the better)
- What protocols do they support? (OpenVPN is great, but if you are on a mobile device, PPTP)
- What payment methods do they offer? (Again depending on where you are located and what you need the VPN for, the less information your VPN Provider requires the better… Bitcoin anyone?)
- READ the T&C ( How will they handle copyright complaints, court orders or subpoenas?)
Getting a clear and satisfactory answer to all questions is difficult. Look for a provider whom you think you can trust who will satisfy most points and sign up for a trial only. During the trial check ease of use and connection speeds before making a final decision, after all VPNs are about privacy AND speed.
What do you think? Which providers do you use and why? Comments are open…
Photo Credit purplejavatroll
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