Do you really need a VPN?

October 22, 2020

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Are you reading this article using a VPN? If so, what made you decide to buy one? If not, did you ever consider getting one? Chances are quite small you have never heard of them, as everywhere you surf, advertisements flood you with the advantages of using a VPN. Many famous youtubers are getting sponsored by VPN companies to inform you about discount opportunities at the start of their videos. They all make claims about how you are unsafe on the internet and how using a VPN will solve these problems and wholly protect your privacy. Are all these claims substantiated, or do they call for distillation? 

“But first, I would like to thank our sponsor…”

A VPN or virtual private network is in short a secure connection between you and the internet. Normally, when browsing the internet, your computer or phone constantly exchanges information with the internet. You upload a search query, you receive the results. However, every website or application that uses the internet can monitor and log all data traffic that it sees. As most people know, in general, every device has a unique digital street address: its IP-address. A website, or rather a server can therefore see exactly which device sends or requests which text, picture or video. When using a VPN, instead of sending and receiving information to and from the internet directly, the device communicates with the VPN server, which in turn extends the communication to the desired web page. 

The IP-address of the user in question is therefore hidden for the rest of the internet. In this way, a VPN user is also able to download illegal/otherwise unavailable content through the IP-address of the VPN, which then serves as a distribution centre.
Also, when forwarding your information to the desired spot on the internet, it does so through a ‘secure tunnel’. It makes sure to encrypt your data when exchanging it with the internet, so that when it does get intercepted, no threat is formed.

Is a VPN necessary?

To be able to decide on getting a VPN, you need to know what you already have.
When using a VPN, your data is sent and received via an encrypted tunnel. But you know what else sends data through an encrypted tunnel? Every website with a padlock in the address bar, every iphone app since 2016 and every android app since 2018. Nowadays, any kind of personal information that is transferred over the internet by any means, makes use of encryption: the https secure connection. 

The claim that your personal data can be intercepted when traveling the internet because you are not using a VPN is therefore false. Any reasonably modern website that handles personal information uses this https encryption.
Many other supposed advantages of a VPN refer to privacy; when using a VPN, your IP-address is hidden for the internet and web pages you are exchanging information with. This is true. The VPN does make sure to cover your digital address, contributing to your privacy. Also, this enables you to download illegal content with nearly zero risk, or content that simply is not available for your location. This, however, does not mean that you are anonymous on the internet, as some VPN companies claim in their advertisements! Besides sending and receiving information to the internet itself, there are many ways in which an online persona can be constructed: 

  • The device you surf on can store and upload any data that it sends or receives from the internet.
  • On many platforms or applications, one browses via a user account, so that all data can be linked to the user. Even many devices itself require a user account, in which information is stored.
  • You generally surf via a web browser, such as Google Chrome, which logs all data traffic.
  • The search query or site address that you enter into the address bar of your browser are not yet hidden by your VPN and can be monitored by e.g. your network company.

Besides, even though most are very secure, VPN servers are not 100% water-tight either.

In short: when surfing the internet, in general, many personal data are exposed, even when making use of a VPN. A VPN is useful when you want to hide your IP-address from websites and the rest of the internet, while enabling you to download illegal or otherwise unavailable content. It can also be useful when you do not want a connection provider (e.g., a school or university) to see which website addresses you browse to. 

Claims by VPN providers

So now that we know what a VPN can and cannot change, we can tell whether these claims made by the companies are true or not. Many online advertisements state or suggest that you are not safe online, that your private data can be intercepted by cyber criminals. 

“Therefore, because the ad created the impression that users were at significant risk from data theft, when that was not the case, we concluded it was misleading.
The ad breached BCAP Code rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.9 (Substantiation).”

The above refers to a case on an ad of a VPN company, in which people hand out a credit card with number and security code, as well as a phone with passwords. This scenario would portrait people on a public wifi network, where supposedly all private information can be easily intercepted by other individuals. As mentioned above, this is not the case, because of the https secure encrypted tunnel that every fairly modern web page or application uses.
A VPN can be useful in some situations, but certainly don’t believe everything they say.

Dit artikel is geschreven door: Pieter Dilg

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