VPNs prevent marketers, others from cashing in on your browser history

With ISPs given free rein to sell customer data, consumers should take steps to protect their privacy

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Vir­tu­al pri­vate net­works are back in the spotlight.

In March, Con­gress vot­ed to repeal rules that would have required inter­net ser­vice providers to get cus­tomer per­mis­sion to sell their web-brows­ing data. ISPs are now free to mar­ket valu­able cus­tomer infor­ma­tion, trig­ger­ing con­cern among pri­va­cy advocates.

John M. Simp­son, Con­sumer Watch­dog pri­va­cy project director

Detailed behav­ior pro­files cre­at­ed by ISPs could be par­tic­u­lar­ly handy tools for mar­keters tar­get­ing those most vul­ner­a­ble to preda­to­ry sales cam­paigns, includ­ing the poor and tech neo­phytes. “Fur­ther over­reach­ing by ISPs … opens the doors to all kind of abus­es that shouldn’t hap­pen,” says John M. Simp­son, pri­va­cy project direc­tor for the advo­ca­cy group, Con­sumer Watch­dog. “The kind of pro­fil­ing that will be done, and what ISPs will do with those pro­files, is com­plete­ly inappropriate.”

Relat­ed sto­ry: Rul­ing lets ISPs sell your per­son­al information

Rule pro­po­nents say con­sumers can pro­tect their pri­va­cy by “opt­ing out” of ISPs’ ad-tar­get­ing pro­grams. But opt-out notices from ISPs often get lost in the mail, and peo­ple often are too busy to proac­tive­ly take action to wig­gle out of ISPs’ default setting.

As the ISPs claim their lob­by­ing vic­to­ry, pri­va­cy advo­cates con­sis­tent­ly rec­om­mend VPNs for cus­tomers who are mind­ful of guard­ing their online habits.

A VPN is a pri­vate inter­net net­work, using servers often locat­ed in oth­er coun­tries, that encrypt your connection—and dis­guise your location—so that oth­ers out­side of the net­work, includ­ing your ISP, can’t see what you’re doing online.

If you con­tin­u­al­ly use VPN tech­nol­o­gy, all ISP will see is your com­put­er in your house going to an exit point that you define, which may be anoth­er coun­try,” says Travis Wit­teveen, CEO of Ger­man cyber­se­cu­ri­ty firm Avi­ra, which offers VPN and oth­er pro­tec­tion soft­ware. “They will see that you’re send­ing traf­fic there.”

VPNs slow­ly catch­ing on in U.S.

Use of VPN is still rel­a­tive­ly lim­it­ed in the Unit­ed States. Only about 5 per­cent of inter­net users surf through VPNs, accord­ing to blog VPN­Men­tor, cit­ing research from Glob­al­We­bIndex. It’s much more pop­u­lar in devel­op­ing coun­tries, such as Turkey and Chi­na, where more con­tent is like­ly to be cen­sored or blocked.

Giv­en the lim­it­ed use in the U.S. and grow­ing con­cerns about the ISPs’ mar­ket­ing zeal, experts believe VPN usage will only grow in the com­ing years. And a wide vari­ety of com­mer­cial VPNs, includ­ing free options, are pitch­ing their prod­uct aggres­sive­ly to court new users.

Using a VPN is par­tic­u­lar­ly rec­om­mend­ed when a user is in an unse­cured Wi-Fi envi­ron­ment, which could entice hack­ers in the local net­work to eaves­drop on your traf­fic. Home net­works may be safer, but with­out VPN pro­tec­tion, ISPs and web­sites can eas­i­ly track your brows­ing his­to­ry through cook­ies and oth­er track­ing devices.

VPNs also are handy when you want to browse freely in cer­tain coun­tries that block traf­fic to some sites. Chi­na, for instance, blocks Face­book, Google and NYTimes.com.

Down­load­ing some ques­tion­able con­tent, such as copy­right-pro­tect­ed media files or tor­rent files, could be a case for VPN usage.

Find­ing a trust­wor­thy VPN

VPNs may offer pro­tec­tion from ISPs’ snoop­ing, but VPN providers osten­si­bly then will have your inter­net activ­i­ty data that you were ini­tial­ly afraid to ren­der to ISPs. Shop­ping for a trust­wor­thy VPN is a task worth investigating.

Pay atten­tion to a VPN’s terms of ser­vice. Some VPNs will state clear­ly that they don’t keep logs of user activity.

Travis Wit­teveen, Avi­ra CEO

Some experts believe it’s bet­ter to avoid free VPN ser­vices and stick with ven­dors that require sub­scrip­tion since they’re less like­ly to sell your data. “It’s not a lot of mon­ey,” Wit­teveen says.

Shop­ping for reli­able VPN providers should include an assess­ment of where they’re locat­ed. “The coun­try of ori­gin is impor­tant,” Wit­teveen says, adding that some gov­ern­ments will not be as open about data pri­va­cy laws.

In the Unit­ed States, encryp­tion is con­sid­ered a weapon, and gov­ern­ment approval is need­ed, Wit­teveen says. That means they’re often involved, he says, adding Ger­man pri­va­cy laws are more strin­gent on VPN providers.

Cus­tomers also should choose to work only with VPN ven­dors that are large enough and have the finan­cial strength to sus­tain their ser­vices. Cus­tomers should con­ducts some research to see if a VPN ven­dor has ever mar­ket­ed its cus­tomer data.

Speed is a concern

Because it’s an addi­tion­al lay­er of encryp­tion, some cus­tomers wor­ry that VPN slows data trans­mis­sion speeds. Wit­teveen says it’s a legit­i­mate con­cern if you’re deal­ing with a ven­dor with lim­it­ed capac­i­ty. “If your VPN provider is a big enough com­pa­ny, then you won’t even notice latency.”

Cus­tomers also should review how the VPN is imple­ment­ed. Some VPNs are mere­ly brows­er exten­sions, and only surf­ing activ­i­ty with­in the brows­er is encrypt­ed. Oth­er apps aren’t protected.

Some VPNs will seek more pay­ment for faster speeds or have per­for­mance restric­tions. Oth­ers may impose data lim­its or ban tor­rent files.

Of course, VPNs are hard­ly the cure-alls they’re often tout­ed to be. Eth­i­cal­ly ques­tion­able VPN ven­dors that close­ly log your activ­i­ty undoubt­ed­ly exist. Some say they’re just a glo­ri­fied proxy with lim­it­ed pro­tec­tion. They say the only encrypt­ed part of the con­nec­tion is from your com­put­er to the VPN.

Wit­teveen says cus­tomers should embrace pro­tec­tive mea­sures beyond VPN. Brows­er secu­ri­ty soft­ware, ad-block­ing tools, encrypt­ed surf­ing, soft­ware updates and pass­word pro­tec­tion should work in tandem.

VPN is one piece of the data puz­zle,” Wit­teveen says. “If you’re get­ting con­cerned, you need to invest more.”

More sto­ries relat­ed to data privacy:
Don’t expect Trump to leave inter­net rules, reg­u­la­tions intact
Fair or foul? New foren­sics tools raise pri­va­cy concerns
Who’s lis­ten­ing? Pri­va­cy ques­tions echo across the Inter­net of Things

Posted in Best Practices, Consumer Tips, Data Privacy, Featured Story