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Using a VPN to Protect Your Privacy on the Internet

By Andre Roberge

Last week I set up a VPN connection from my home to my service provider. For years of I’ve used anti-virus software, anti-malware, firewalls and the like to protect my PC and the information on it from evil villains. Now, it seems, the real people I need to protect against is my own government and its agencies.

I Have Seen The Enemy And He Is Us

There’s been a lot of attention about the NSA, police departments and other government agencies tapping into Internet connections and invading privacy without consent or knowledge or even warrants. Most of this has come up from the Edward Snowden revelations. But the privacy issue has been simmering for a long time and people have been complacent about it. Edward Snowden just brought it to the forefront where we can give it the attention it deserves.

The “I have nothing to hide” response is just feckless. Our society is turning into a police state under our very noses and its time we protect ourselves. It will take years to sort this out, reign in the agencies and have the proper legislation in place. Likely, whatever comes of it will be watered down and insufficient.   

Virtual Private Networks

My answer to all this is to use a VPN. Most people already use VPNs to connect to their office networks. But you can use VPNs to protect your own personal information on the Internet, not just your employer’s. You might want to do this to protect your privacy or if you are downloading copyrighted material.

How Personal Information Is Stolen

This is how it works. Whether you make online purchases or go to government web sites your personal information is vulnerable. There are three main places where information is vulnerable: while it’s on your PC, when it’s on the server at the other end, and while it’s in transit on the Internet.

  • You can deal with the PC issue by keeping up to date anti-malware software on our PCs and using firewalls. That technology is pretty well understood.

  • For the server issue, such as the Heartbleed bug, you pretty well have to trust that the administrators at the other end to act responsibly and protect your data. You can reduce your risk by dealing only with reputable dealers and frequently changing passwords.

  • The NSA issue (the “man in the middle” problem) hasn’t been a big issue until the Snowden revelations showed us how prevalent it is. The solution to this problem is VPNs.

When you use the web, your PC makes connections with servers all over the world. Your data leaves your PC and gets carried by your cable or phone company up to a “peering point” where your service provider connects to global service providers and eventually to servers somewhere else. Since your connections go to servers all over the world, the only practical place anyone can collect your specific information is by capturing it at source, from your modem. It’s the same as tapping into a phone line.

Whoever does the snooping needs your IP address and access to your service provider’s network.

The Disappearing Act

Using a VPN is like using your neighbor’s phone. It lets you connect to web servers using a different IP address, one which isn’t being tapped. And, unlike the IP address given to you by your service provider, you can change that IP address which makes it pretty much untraceable. Better yet, you can encrypt your connection to ensure that even if your neighbor’s line is tapped, they still can’t make sense of what you are sending. It’s like protecting yourself from a phone tap and bug at the same time.

Many service providers provide VPNs. But if your service provider is giving out your IP address to government agencies and letting them tap on your Internet connection, then you can’t really trust them to provide a VPN service that protects your privacy, can you?

VPN Providers

There are a number of service providers that act as your “neighbor” and will let you use their computers to set up your VPN. Some of them are free and some are subscription services. I don’t trust the free ones. They might be tapping in on your connection and extracting credit card information and so on. I use a private subscription service. They have servers all over the world. So if you want it to look like your connection is from Japan, you can do that. This is useful if you ever need content that has regional restrictions such as some books or TV content.

Bear in mind that VPN connections may be slower than normal connections. This is because your traffic takes a longer path to get to where its going and because of the encryption overhead. So in some cases video doesn’t work too well over VPN connections.

Use a VPN for All Your Surfing

Setting up a VPN is pretty simple; you just need to install some software like OpenVPN which your VPN provider provides. You just need to remember to activate it whenever you start using the Internet.

In my case, I’ve set up my home router which is always up so that it creates the VPN -not my PC. So I don’t have to worry about PC software or turning up the VPN all the time. It also lets me share the VPN service with all the PCs in my home.

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