With the coronavirus pandemic, many employees are working at home for the first time. It isn’t difficult the foresee that cybercriminals will see the surge in remote employees as an opportunity to wreak even more havoc in our lives. And most definitely, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) will see an increase in their use.
The 101 on VPNs
VPNs perform several basic functions to protect your privacy. They encrypt your data. They reroute your data and transmit it through a secure channel. And they hide your IP address. When you install a VPN, neither your internet service provider nor anyone else using your network can see your data. Should anyone try to access your data, they’ll get a gobbledygook of letters, numbers, and symbols for their trouble. VPNs can also make your computer appear to be in a different state or country. This not only helps you hide your metadata but can also give you access to geographically-restricted websites you otherwise might not be able to view from your actual location.
People often use VPNs for the purpose of speeding up their connections—a real boon when you’re streaming movies and other entertainment. VPNs can also offer consumers a shopping advantage. By logging in from an international IP address, they can sometimes access lower prices on certain products.
VPNs also differ in the types of software they employ to safeguard your data. Some experts argue that VPNs that use open-source software to protect your data are the safest choice. Open-source software, because it is free to anyone who agrees to follow the source’s licensing agreement, is constantly subject to testing, tweaking, and improving by an infinitely-curious world of computer programmers.
Privacy and VPNs
The whole reason people install VPNs is to improve data privacy and security. But VPNs also create a privacy risk. Here’s why. Most VPNs create some kind of log. Metadata logs can help VPN service providers optimize performance for their customers by providing bandwidth and time stamp information, for example, and making it easier for providers to troubleshoot their networks. These logs are mostly harmless.
Traffic logs, on the other hand, decrease your privacy. They collect your browsing history, which can be sold to third parties for marketing or other more nefarious purposes. Do not—we repeat, do not—purchase a VPN that collects traffic logs. Carefully read the privacy policies of any VPN service you are considering. Look for a policy that explicitly spells out its log-keeping protocol. The best VPN service providers regularly publish transparency reports. VPN providers that are the most serious about transparency engage third-party auditors to help them identify and close any gaps in their code.