Regardless of your online prowess—or lack thereof—understanding the need for personal protection is almost instinctual. It doesn’t take much to know you need warm clothes to protect yourself from the elements and a seatbelt to protect yourself from injury. These, among thousands of other measures, are simple ways we keep ourselves safe in the real world. In cyberspace, where you also spend a considerable amount of time, the basic rules of personal safety also apply—and at the root, they are no different.
Because the internet was created by humans, it can generally be seen as one giant analogy for our lives in the real world. The terminology, the construct, the vulnerabilities, the philosophies—they all relate back to what we, as humans, already know and understand about our surroundings. In that way, the internet is really just an extension of the long and colorful history we have already established. Since the dawn of man, we have been required to protect ourselves from predators, from enemies, from the elements. And today, we still take endless precautions to protect ourselves from a whole new host of modern threats, many of which are constantly evolving. So, it makes sense that this technological age is now demanding we develop way to protect our online existence—it’s a natural progression. If we don’t, we may likely suffer at the contemporary equivalent of a tiger attack, otherwise known as an exploit.
But isn’t the internet basically safe? We all have passwords—the more complicated, the better—and various precautions in place to keep our valuable data hidden. True. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that online security demands a lot more than just some strong login information and updated software. It requires encryption. Hackers, government agencies, and all sorts of savvy cyber navigators have it—do you? If you are accessing the internet (or God forbid, the Darknet) without a virtual private network (VPN), you are essentially marching out into a crowded area completely unprotected and exposed. If this is not something you would ever do in real life, why do it online?
When folks hear the world encryption, they usually think of black hats and government spies. The term is often tied up in reports about terrorism, national security, and cyber attacks, all of which put people on edge. Just like all technology, encryption has the potential to be misused, but that does not mean it’s dangerous. In fact, encryption offers one of the best ways to protect yourself online—so if you’re not using it, you should be. And it’s not particularly hard to understand. The ancient practice of hiding your own business began in the form of cryptography way back in 3,000 BCE when the earliest civilization of Sumer (in what is now Iraq) created language codes and cuneiform script. They likely used cryptography to encode messages about the going price of animal hide and the secret of growing sky-high wheat. And for later civilizations in Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Italy, encryption helped them encode secret messages about all sorts of things from military details to treasure sites to spy communications. And although the world and its landscape have obviously changed a great deal since those ancient times, computer scientists, developers, and hackers of today still use a modern form of cryptography to safeguard their communications. Instead of what was once wedge-shaped writing on a clay tablet, modern encryption comes in the form of algorithms and mathematical calculations. And this is where a VPN draws its strength. Through the use of encrypted keys, a VPN can create a protected tunnel for online activity, allowing any user to communicate and interact with integrity, protection, and freedom.
When you access the internet, you are entering a network filled with all kinds of people looking to accomplish all sorts of things—a decidedly unsafe environment. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel through this dodgy territory so you can move about with confidence and privacy. Normally when you first hop online, you are connected to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) who then links you to whatever website or internet resource you wish to visit. As a result, all of your internet traffic passes through your ISP’s servers and can, therefore, be viewed by your ISP (and a lot of other people). But a VPN allows a user to first connect via encryption to a private server, which means all their data is traveling in hidden form.
First developed as a way to provide remote users with secure access to applications and other resources, a VPN is now available to the average person who doesn’t have a private network but still wants increased privacy and protection. A VPN essentially extends this privilege by enabling users to send and receive data across shared or public networks through a secure connection. In the simplest terms, this creates a safe path between your computer or personal device and a server operated by the VPN service. And in this way, the user benefits from the protection of this private network and can:
● Safeguard communications.
● Keep internet activity private.
● Access some restricted resources.
● Evade censorship from outside forces.
● Camouflage their geographical location.
● Use public WiFi hotspots without fear of an untrusted network.
● Protect personal information from exposure to unknown entities.
But even the most well-defended fortress in the world has vulnerabilities, so it’s important to understand the limitations of any safeguard. While a VPN will certainly increase a user’s privacy and security, it cannot guarantee complete anonymity, because the provider still knows who you are. Although the service may claim to use “no logs”—otherwise known as what you get up to on the internet— it’s hard to really know for sure how much monitoring goes on. Just remember, anything you do on the internet requires a certain level of trust—that’s what it’s all about. Anytime you shift your trust from one entity to another, you must reassess the integrity of the new medium. So when you move away from your ISP—which, the by the way, has no interest in your need for privacy—you are essentially putting your security in the hands of a VPN server. And as a result, you need to choose your VPN provider carefully, as many services are not nearly as private or trustworthy as they appear.
The first way to think about this decision is to remember the basic law of the land. Whatever personal information you give a VPN provider can ultimately be compromised if the government demands it. Because no VPN business if going to tank themselves for the sake of your security, they will be forced to sacrifice your privacy. If the data exists, the government can compel a VPN service to hand it over—period. As a result, it’s best to choose a service with as few personal information requirements as possible. The second way to choose a VPN provider is to remember the great motivator behind all human behavior—money. Running a VPN service is not cheap, and if you sign up for a free account, you may find they have sold your data as a way to recoup their expenses. Everybody’s gotta make a living, right? On the other hand, if you pay (even nominally) for a VPN service, they will likely be motivated to protect your privacy as much as possible, or they’ll be out of business. As they say, if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product…
And finally, always consider the country where your VPN service is based, as the laws of that nation have the potential to affect your overall security. For example, even some European countries require communication companies to keep logs, at least for a certain amount of time, making more lenient places like Luxembourg, Romania, Netherlands, and Sweden better choices for VPN providers. And for those privacy-minded users who are ever concerned about the process, it’s nice to know some VPN services accept alternative methods of payment like Bitcoin, cash through snail mail, or anonymously purchased store cards. If used in conjunction with encrypted email, this approach to a VPN adds an extra layer of privacy, as the service does not know your real name, address, or banking details. But unless you connect to a VPN through the anonymous Tor network, your provider does still know your real IP address and your true physical location. And even though a VPN does not track you, some website will by dropping cookies on your movements or “fingerprinting” your browser—two things a VPN cannot prevent.
But if you pirate the occasional movie, sometimes avoid a copyright, or engage in low-level criminal activities, a VPN can prevent you from being tracked and held accountable. But if the authorities, your government, or the NSA are specifically interested in you, the massive amounts of time and resources they will funnel into their investigation will invariably lead to your exposure. As long as you understand and accept these realities, you can (for just a few dollars a month) greatly enhance your internet experience through a newfound level of privacy and protection.
Regardless of the many hazards, using a solid, reliable VPN service offers a degree of privacy rarely experienced by the average user—and it’s completely legal. It begs the question: Why wouldn’t you? our nation continues to move in the direction of blanket government surveillance and covert monitoring—not to mention the chronic threat of cyberattacks—the use of a VPN is soon to become as important as your internet connection. Privacy is the issue of the future, so perhaps it’s about time you took charge of your own.