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VPN usage is soaring, but alone they won't keep your privacy safe

By James Walker     Mar 30, 2017 in Technology
In the wake of the U.S. Congress' landmark vote to repeal the FCC's broadband privacy rules, web users are turning to VPNs in an attempt to keep their browsing private. The apps route your data through a third-party service but can introduce more issues.
The backstory
Last year, the FCC introduced new forward-thinking rules forcing broadband providers to obtain consent from their customers before selling data to other companies. Since providers could store records of the complete browsing history of their users, the ruling sought to keep consumers protected and prevent ISPs from furtively selling data for advertising.
This week, the protections were swept away as House Republicans in Congress voted to repeal the legislation. Once signed by President Trump, the ruling – yet to be introduced – will be reversed, consigning the FCC's work to the past before it's even taken effect. Broadband providers will once again be free to sell your data without you knowing or consenting.
Introducing VPNs
The news has caused a spike in interest in VPN services. Google's search trends reveal a significantly higher volume of searches for VPN apps and tutorials this month. With the ISPs no longer obliged to protect their customers' data, consumers are stepping up and accepting responsibility themselves.
VPNs (short for Virtual Private Network) are networks of computers connected over the Internet. When you're using the VPN, your device appears to be on a local network with the other machines, rather than the wider Internet. This puts another security barrier between your computer and the rest of the web.
Google searches for  VPN  in the U.S. over the past five years
Google searches for "VPN" in the U.S. over the past five years
Data sent to websites you visit will be pushed through the VPN to its destination. The same tunnel will be used to return the response to your computer. To outsiders, such as your internet service provider, only the VPN itself can be seen.
It's not possible to inspect the traffic within the VPN network. At first sight, this prevents your ISP from collecting your browsing history and selling it to third-parties.
The benefits
VPNs can work well. They provide you with a route around censorship and content blocking, letting you access websites in a different country to your physical region. This feature is commonly used to access streaming media that's not available in every location. Using a VPN server based in a country where the film or game is available will allow you to view the content.
Digital Journal
File photo: A man browses the Web in an airport
File photo
VPNs also help protect you on public Wi-Fi networks by preventing people snooping on the traffic from seeing the website addresses you visit. They also let you circumvent website monitoring and blocking tools commonly used by schools and businesses, giving you an alternative route to the wider Internet.
The downsides
Unfortunately, VPNs aren't a perfect solution. There's one pretty major problem with commercial VPN services: you have to trust the provider. By using a VPN, you're shifting responsibility for your data from your ISP to the VPN operator. Although VPNs stop your internet provider selling your browsing history, there's nothing to stop nefarious services from passing it onto third parties themselves.
To stay safe, you should always use a reputable VPN service that's well known and has a transparent privacy policy. These services tend to carry a monthly subscription fee, although many also offer a limited free plan. In general, you're probably best off avoiding lesser-known VPNs that claim to be entirely free. These may be less secure and could put your data at more risk.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
U.S. Federal Communications Commission
VPN apps are available for desktop PCs, tablets and smartphones. They range from simplistic one-button affairs that let you get online in an instant to sophisticated services that give you fine control over your VPN connection. There are also VPN extensions for web browsers and Opera now comes with one built-in.
If you're really looking for total protection, it's best to set up your own VPN server. It's possible to repurpose an old PC as a VPN you can connect to from anywhere in the world. This solution is generally for more technically minded users but tutorials are available to guide beginners through the process. The outcome is a VPN server that gives you total control and allows you to be confident your data is being kept secure.
VPNs – Stay private online
The upheaval caused by the repeal of the FCC's broadband legislation appears to have forced many consumers into acknowledgement of what their data could be worth to advertisers. VPNs are one way to solve the resulting problem but they don't represent a perfect solution.
The CRTC has declared broadband Internet a basic telecommunications service  guaranteed to all Canad...
The CRTC has declared broadband Internet a basic telecommunications service, guaranteed to all Canadians
Sean MacEntee via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Installing a VPN has several advantages for any user. Eventually, your data still has to leave the network though. At this point, it could be sold on, compromised or tracked. VPNs let you prevent your ISP from looking at your web usage but they don't remove the wider risks. Large commercial VPNs should be safe to use but your data could still be accessed if the service is the victim of a cyberattack.
With VPN usage on the uptake, it's evident larger swathes of web users are looking to enhance their online security. Recent figures have demonstrated VPNs are no longer a niche tool for internet power users. It's estimated as many as one in four people routinely use a VPN. This figure could be set to rise further as outrage at the House vote spreads, sending a clear message to Congress over its stance on online security.
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