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A VPN is NOT A Security Tool! It's in the Name

Michael O'Dwyer| October 15 2020

| security, IT insights

vpn

Some may argue that VPNs enhance security (encrypted connections etc.) but their core aim is privacy – it’s in the name – virtual private network.

It’s a sad fact of life that nation-state actors and Big Tech, not to mention hackers, are interested in our online communications and the data within it. Some countries censor citizen’s access to the internet, blocking non-compliant sites at will. They also focus on preventing technologies that circumvent these blocks.

To get around these blocks, millions of web-faring citizens worldwide enter the world of VPNs (virtual private networks), which employ a variety of encryption methods (Cisco IPSec, IKEv2/IPSec, L2TP/IPSec, and SSTP, for example) to ‘hide’ amongst the volumes of internet traffic created every day. It’s an arms race of sorts with VPN providers seeking to avoid detection and their counterparts enhancing detection and blocking methods with AI-based automation. Some may argue that VPNs enhance security (encrypted connections etc.) but their core aim is privacy – it’s in the name – virtual private network.

Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this is to tell you why I use a VPN…

Even before Mr. Edward Snowden’s revelations, I understood a global surveillance network existed and that many countries were actively spying on all of us. Surveillance, counter surveillance, intelligence and counterintelligence are all vying for dominance in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom, where user privacy is sacrificed in the name of national security. Therefore, I was under no illusions that online privacy existed, a position validated by investigative journalism and whistleblowers. One 2013 article from The Guardian revealed that tech companies and even ISPs are all part of this ‘conspiracy’. In an effort to counter this, I made VPN usage part and parcel of my online activities. It may not stop surveillance but it’ll certainly slow it down… and having national security analysts waste their time on my trivial communications has a certain appeal, especially if suspicious keywords are added. “How about that assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, that certainly kicked off a World War, didn’t it?”

If You’ve Nothing To Hide…

Why should we sacrifice our privacy? Everyone has something to hide, no matter how trivial it is. My likes, dislikes, political and religious beliefs are mine and I choose who to share them with. If you believe that it’s fine to sacrifice privacy when “you’ve got nothing to hide,” we can never be friends. You’ve drank the Kool-Aid and deserve the leaders you have.

VPNs allow me to enhance privacy, preventing local ISPs (in various countries) from logging my internet traffic. Unfortunately, not all VPNs are created equal and many, especially the free ones, log all traffic for later marketing analysis. They will also hand over these logs to law enforcement, intelligence etc. when asked. Kind of defeats the privacy aim, doesn’t it?

Therefore, it’s worth researching VPN providers to ensure that no logs are kept and that the company is registered offshore, in a country not bound by national security agendas. Which VPN is best? Why would I say here? Prior providers have aggressively marketed themselves as the best provider for certain countries, providing a viable target for those who aim to shut them down. The services then became unusable in a matter of weeks. Others have been hacked…If you really want to know my VPN provider, set up a ProtonMail account, contact me and I’ll send a referral. Include a passport image (with numbers blurred) to ensure you’re not a citizen of a country that bans VPN use. The law of the land is still law of the land, right?

Of course, nation-state actors are not the only threats to online privacy. Data analytics as employed by marketing is perhaps the biggest online threat. If they were not so intent on gathering all data, data breaches would have less of an impact.

It’s Not Marketing, It’s Surveillance

If you’re involved in sales or marketing, you’ll likely have come across the expression “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” But in today’s environment, a steak is still a steak but millions are spent, identifying the sizzle, creating an avatar of the ideal customer and forecasting future purchases (and not just for steak) by any number of criteria. Did we agree to this? I didn’t. VPNs can help here too. I set mine to change server locations every 30 minutes. It confuses the hell out of any active tracking cookies and makes my browsing data useless to marketers. Good, I didn’t opt in. Is it not enough that I bought the steak?

As mentioned earlier, VPN selection is important. You don’t want to substitute one form of surveillance for another. Facebook’s VPN is one relevant example of surveillance marketing; they used a VPN app to gain insights from our kids… using the acquired knowledge to determine the viability of their WhatsApp purchase.

What VPNs Are Good For

Apart from slowing down nation-state surveillance and skewing the data from tracking cookies, VPNs offer other privacy (and some security) advantages in certain situations. These include but are not limited to:

  • Adding encryption if you’re on public Wi-Fi, preventing hackers from gathering your data.
  • Allowing internet access in countries that block certain sites or functions.
  • Remote access to services in your home country (if the VPN provider has servers in that country).
  • Allowing remote workers or students to access private networks with a secure connection.
  • Preventing ISPs from gathering and/or selling your browsing data. In the USA, such action was approved by the Senate in March 2017 and in November the same year, Net Neutrality became a memory of the Obama era.
  • If you know you’re being watched, a political dissident, for example.
  • A journalist seeking privacy in a country that doesn’t favor free speech.
  • If, like me, you just want some illusion of privacy.

To confuse things even further, you could also use the Tor (the onion router) network which puts an ‘anonymous’ peer to peer browsing process in place but it’s typically much slower. It should only be used when privacy concerns outweigh productivity goals. Choose the level of privacy you hope to achieve and remember that nothing is guaranteed when online. Supercomputers can and do establish usage patterns by user (on Tor and on VPN) when he/she is targeted by Big Brother.

Consider a VPN as just one tool in your privacy arsenal. Using adblockers, forcing SSL and privacy-focused browsers, Linux distros and search engines (that do not store logs) can all enhance your privacy online. How essential they are depends on your attitude to privacy. I advocate as much privacy as possible. How about you? Are you keen to share all your online communications with third parties or prepared to prevent it as much as possible?

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Topics: security, IT insights

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THIS POST WAS WRITTEN BY Michael O'Dwyer

An Irishman based in Hong Kong, Michael O’Dwyer is a business & technology journalist, independent consultant and writer who specializes in writing for enterprise, small business and IT audiences. With 20+ years of experience in everything from IT and electronic component-level failure analysis to process improvement and supply chains (and an in-depth knowledge of Klingon,) Michael is a sought-after writer whose quality sources, deep research and quirky sense of humor ensures he’s welcome in high-profile publications such as The Street and Fortune 100 IT portals.

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