Worried about data snooping by Internet providers? Stop them with a VPN
The vote this week by the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal privacy rules limiting how Internet service providers can use customer data without their consent has spurred a lot of questions about which tools can protect their online browsing from prying eyes.
The new law hasn’t come into effect yet, but it’s now a bill supported by President Donald Trump, so it’s just a matter of time. Once it’s signed as expected, ISPs will be able to sell your browsing history to anyone that wants it.
This potentially includes any information from your online activity like financial and medical information, your social security number, information about your children and the contents of your emails. It can also use malware-filled ads to monitor all your traffic and hijack and share your searches with third parties.
That’s why individuals are seeking out tools that will be able to help them protect their data from ISPs, which now face potential wrath and pushback from customers. “I think the relationship between ISPs and their customers will suffer after the repeal of the FCC’s broadband privacy rules,” Michelle De Mooy, director of privacy and data at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told eMarketer. “People care deeply about their privacy and they have clearly expressed time and again that they want control over who collects and shares their personal information.”
In particular, there has been renewed interest in using a Virtual Private Network for protection. In the past VPNs have been used to protect your data on a public Wi-Fi network, bypass government restrictions on web surfing or get access to another country’s Netflix library. Following the vote, privacy-conscious individuals are exploring VPNs as a way to protect them from ISPs.
Unfortunately, VPNs aren’t a foolproof solution and have their own drawbacks. If you are concerned by the vote, as you should be, here’s a look at how to protect yourself with a VPN as well the things to consider before you select a provider.
Install a VPN
A VPN helps protect your privacy by redirecting your internet traffic and disguises where your device (computer, phone or tablet) is when it connects with websites. The information that you send across the internet is also encrypted. So if anyone intercepts the traffic, like your ISP, then the information is unreadable.
VPN: advantages and drawbacks
VPNs can protect your data, including your web-browsing history and online activities, as well as offer protection from government surveillance and malware.
There are potential drawbacks of VPNs that you need to be aware of before making the assumption that you are completely protected. VPNs can protect you from your ISP, but they are also perfectly positioned to access all the data that you are trying to keep safe.
When selecting a VPN provider, you need to check whether the company is keeping logs of user activity. If a company has a no-log policy, it is usually very upfront about this fact to make it clear not only to customers, but also to law enforcement groups. With a no-log policy in place, these VPN companies will not have access to any customer records regardless of whether they’re served with a warrant or subpoena.
If this policy isn’t made clear when doing your research, then you will need to read the provider’s terms and conditions. Unfortunately, this isn’t a sure-fire way to select a VPN provider either. Not only can companies accidentally store data without realizing it, but they could also misrepresent its logging policies.
Mobile VPN safety concerns
Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization recently conducted an analysis of 283 mobile VPNs on the Google Play store (PDF download) and found significant security concerns. Of the VPNs that were tested, 18 percent created private network “tunnels” for traffic to move through but didn’t encrypt them at all. And 84 percent didn’t use the most recent version of the Internet Protocol to properly encrypt traffic between sites.
There are plenty of free VPNs available and while these aren’t necessarily bad, all services have to make money. A free service could possibly collect and sell your data to third parties, use ads to support its services or not provide the security features it claims due to a lack of resources.
Opera Software ASA launched a free built-in VPN service and ad blocker in September, which offers protection when using the Opera browser. Opera, which was acquired by a consortium of Chinese companies in February last year, insists the web browser VPN will not collect any user data.
Paid VPN services start around $40 for an annual subscription, though they can cost as much as $100. There are also monthly payment options available for most services.
There are many VPN service providers, including Private Internet Access, TunnelBear, ExpressVPN and others, offering varying degrees of security. Unfortunately, making recommendations about VPNs is difficult as there is no outside evaluation, so many companies tend to be vague and oversell their services. But even though it’s impossible to verify all the information, it is important to do adequate research when choosing a VPN provider.
If you want total privacy, you can use a service such as Tor, which stands for “The Onion Router” because of its many onion-like layers used to mask network activity. Tor lets you communicate anonymously on the Internet and prevents individuals seeing your browsing history or location. The drawbacks of Tor are that it can be slower than a VPN and it takes a bit more work to set up.
What else can you do?
Sites that use HTTPS limit the amount of information that ISPs can see. HTTPS uses the secure transport layer security protocol to encrypt the traffic between your device and the destination websites. The ISP will be able to see the domain you are visiting and when, but won’t be able to see the actual pages you visit or the information that you send. However, just knowing the domains you are visiting can give ISPs sufficient information that can be sold to third parties.
Very few websites have enabled HTTPS, but installing an extension such as HTTPS Everywhere will ensure that all website connections to your browser occur using TLS encryption.
Unfortunately, ISPs are able to work around HTTPS traffic before it is encrypted by pre-installing traffic monitoring software on phones.
While the tools mentioned have their drawbacks and aren’t all easy to use, finding a trusted VPN can offer you protection from ISPs interesting in selling your data.
Image: elhombredenegro; Flickr
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