By now, you’ve probably heard a lot of good things about how using a Virtual Private Network or VPN is the best way of ensuring your security and privacy online. In a digital environment where service providers, websites, online platforms and resources of all kinds are taking increasing liberties with the privacy rights and civil liberties of the consumer, a VPN can be an extremely valuable tool.
Very much as its name suggests, a Virtual Private Network or VPN is a digitally crafted private network that keeps you remote from the internet at large. It does this by encrypting all the information that passes between your device and the internet, using high-strength encoding that would make it very difficult to decipher for anyone who intercepts the data stream.
A VPN also masks the true location of your connecting device when it makes contact with websites and other online resources. It does this by redirecting your data traffic to the web servers of your VPN provider or application vendor. The IP addresses of the VPN servers will appear, instead of that of your home location – and these servers may be located in any part of the globe.
In fact, giving VPN subscribers their choice of locations to virtually connect from is part of the appeal of Virtual Private Networks. It’s this option that enables users to connect to streaming media servers and other online content which might otherwise be denied to them due to website policies, copyright law, or censorship and restrictions imposed by regional and national authorities.
To mask your IP address, online transactions, and browsing history, a VPN provider first requires access to all of these things, before they can work their magic of secure encryption. And of course, VPN apps and subscription-based services require some form of operating capital, in order to stay in business – especially the free ones.
They may not go as far as the “free” VPN service which was discovered in 2015 to have been selling off bandwidth from its free customers to paying subscribers, but the less scrupulous operations may call upon several assets, based simply on the information you provide.
Before setting up an account with a VPN provider, you’ll typically need to supply a basic set of identifying data: Your name, email address, phone number, PayPal or credit card details, and the like. Personally Identifiable Information (or PII) like this is not only a valuable asset to fraudsters, identity thieves, and cyber-criminals – it’s also marketing gold for advertising networks, pollsters, government departments, and investigators.
- Account Setup Credentials – Name and Email Address
- Billing and Payment Information to subscribe to the service
- IP Address
- Language Settings
- Unique Device ID
- Mobile Device Brand, Model and Operating System
- Bluetooth Versions
- Network Provider
- Geographical data based on the GPS/Wi-Fi Network position
- Safe Scan feature of the App saves URLs you visit
- Tell a friend feature collects the name and email address of the friends you refer
Anonymization and “No Logs” Privacy
Anonymization – or the process of stripping out entries from Personally Identifiable Information so it can’t be traced back to a specific individual – is one guarantee often made by VPN providers and the developers of “incognito” web software such as the Tor anonymous browser. It’s a powerful privacy protection in theory – but recent security research has revealed that it’s fairly easy to reconstruct a persona from anonymized data, with the right tools and information sources.
Caution should also be exercised with VPN providers who claim that they keep no logs at all, of their customers’ data usage. In fact, many providers will do this, but it’s not a strictly valid claim. Most VPN services log metadata: Connection details, time spent on a particular server, timestamps for VPN tunneling sessions, and other similar variables.
The Privacy Shield
Collectively known as the “Privacy Shield”, the policy applies to Personally Identifiable Information received in the US from customers in the European Economic Area (EEA) or the independent principality of Switzerland, and covers principles relating to “notice, choice, accountability for onward transfer, security, data integrity and purpose limitation, access, and recourse, enforcement, and liability.”
It’s also a very conscious nod towards the impending rules of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – consumer privacy legislation which comes into effect in May 2018 and is intended for the protection of EU (European Union) residents, but whose terms apply to all individuals and business entities having dealings with the personal data of consumers or subscribers in Europe.
In fact, the GDPR is empowered to impose significant penalties on companies found not to comply with its terms – among which are the inclusion of communications with customers and contract documents (including Privacy Policies) which are written in clear and unambiguous terms.
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