Commercial VPN services have recently gained widespread popularity and many present themselves as a solution for online privacy. Some of them even claim to enable anonymous internet browsing. However, as pointed out in a recent Forbes article, Too Many VPNs Put Our Privacy And Security At Risk, the current VPN market is more of a minefield than an utopia. Numerous VPN services been found to have significant security flaws, and some have been found to be downright malicious – they could potentially be exploiting your data rather than protecting it. While this is concerning on its own, it also highlights a need to better understand how a VPN fits in with a holistic approach to internet privacy.
Commercial VPNs create an encrypted “tunnel” for your web traffic between two points, your computer and your VPN provider. If properly configured, anyone eavesdropping on that connection would only see that you were connected to a VPN; they wouldn’t be able to see your requests to individual websites. This is valuable protection, especially if you are concerned about the trustworthiness of a Wi-Fi hotspot or ISP. But because that tunnel sends all your traffic through the VPN provider, it’s of utmost importance that you use a trustworthy provider with a business model that aligns with your best interests.
However, even the best VPN is only a tool that can protect part of your digital footprint across the internet. Potential privacy compromises are still possible at points before or after the VPN.
While it is often claimed that VPNs enable ‘anonymous’ surfing by obscuring your IP address, this is only successful in defeating the most rudimentary of tracking attempts. Routine browsing activity generates a huge amount of metadata that can be used to uniquely identify and track users without relying on an IP address. Techniques like browser fingerprinting, network traffic analysis, and even browser cookies can leverage this metadata to track users’ activity through a VPN.
A holistic approach to privacy also goes beyond protecting users’ browsing activity; it also includes the privacy and security of data already on your systems. Any computer browsing the open internet, whether behind a VPN or not, is a potential vector for data compromise through malware, phishing, targeted attacks, or unintentional disclosure. A VPN can be a valuable tool for protecting your privacy, but it is far from a comprehensive solution.
Grey Market Labs is a Public Benefit Corporation founded with the social mission to protect life online for people and organizations. Our software and hardware products are creating a future with privacy-as-a-service, delivering proactive internet protection from the moment of access to countering exploitation of digital behavior and activity. Simply: we prevent data from being compromised, establish trust between users and protect our customers work, online
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