For Internet Privacy, VPNs Are an Imperfect Shield
By BRIAN X. CHEN
Apr 5 2017
When Congress voted to overturn online privacy rules last week, Steve Wilmot, a Los Angeles songwriter, reacted like many worried consumers: He looked into signing up for a technology service known as a virtual private network, or VPN.
The online privacy rules, which were set to go into effect this year and which President Trump fully repealed on Monday, would have required broadband providers like Comcast and Charter to get permission from customers before selling their browsing history to advertisers. Without restrictions, the companies can track and sell people’s information with greater ease.
A VPN was a natural service to consider in response. That’s because the technology creates a virtual tunnel that shields your browsing information from your internet service provider. So Mr. Wilmot researched VPNs in hopes of protecting his own browsing data.
“I don’t really want anybody to have any sort of access to what I’m looking at,” he said. “If anyone is going to profit off my privacy, I’d prefer it to be me.”
But while VPNs are worth considering, they are an incomplete and flawed solution. For one thing, they often slow down internet speeds significantly. Some apps and services may also stop working properly when you are connected to a virtual network.
Still, VPNs are among several tools for better protecting your digital privacy. Here’s an overview of the pros and cons, based on tests of VPN services and interviews with security experts.
Why go with a VPN?
When you browse the web, a broadband provider helps route your device’s internet traffic to each destination website. Each device you use has an identifier consisting of a string of numbers, also known as an IP address. When you are on the internet, a service provider can see which devices you use and which sites you visit.
VPNs help cloak your browsing information from your internet provider. When you use VPN software, your device connects to a VPN provider’s servers. That way, all your web traffic passes through the VPN provider’s internet connection. So if your internet provider was trying to listen in on your web traffic, all it would see is the VPN server’s IP address connected to the VPN service.
“We provide you an encrypted tunnel from you to us,” said Sean Sullivan, a security adviser for F-Secure, a Finland-based company that offers a VPN called Freedome.
VPNs are especially handy when you are connecting to a public Wi-Fi network with which you aren’t familiar. For example, when you use public Wi-Fi at a cafe, airport or hotel, it’s often unclear who the service provider is and what its data collection policies entail. In this scenario, a VPN is highly recommended.
VPNs also have the ability to make it appear as though your device is connecting from a different location. So if you are in Europe, traveling to Spain from France, and want to stream content that is only viewable in France, you could connect to a VPN server whose IP address is in France.
Does a VPN have any downsides?
VPN services have their downsides, and the biggest one is speed degradation. Because your internet traffic passes through a VPN provider’s connection, you will likely see a dip in broadband performance.