VPN, Friend or Foe

Christopher Sewerd From our Perspective

I was recently given a link to an article to read entitled “Don’t Believe The Hype: These New Services Won’t Protect You From The NSA” This is sensationalised journalism at its worst.


While it is somewhat true that VPN providers have been angling their services more recently at protecting their customers from spy agencies in reaction to revelations from the likes of Edward Snowden, it is an expected angle. The reality is that a VPN service is a business and like any online or off-line business the simple goal is to sell your services or products to more consumers. Targeted advertising is nothing new and is a common and completely legitimate way of advertising.


Demand pushes advertising and without the requirement for a product or service no amount of advertising spiel is going to sway consumers, the demand is there, VPN providers are only capitalising on said demand, and why not? In a hot summer do we see articles complaining about the increase in ice cream or water advertisement? Or in the winter a mass increase in cold or flu remedies or even children’s toys? It just doesn’t happen because we expect to increase our need for those products at those times.


The world has hit a major crossroads in the past few years in regard to the internet and governments and actually what we know about what they get up to which is why the demand for privacy has increased. For years we have sat in awe of movies that portray government tracking with James Bond-esque style. The simple fact now is, all those movies we’ve considered far-fetched are more closely related to the truth than we cared to imagine. OK, so the CGI might not be quite true but what those above know about our movements, our habits and our general lifestyle is a scary thought, and not only governments, but large corporations too.


The internet has become a medium that is now ingrained in our lives, every section of society, even those of us lucky enough to have been born before the public internet exploded find daily requirements to make use of it. From governmental services, health services to job applications, many of these require the use of the internet. Our entertainment is more and more linked with online aspects from gaming to TV streaming services and torrent use. Most importantly our communications are being ever more transmitted through the vast network we call the internet. Ten, even five years ago users would happily email off personal details for whatever need, Visit websites that could be considered taboo and in general push personal information from the comfort of their home connection. When I say “taboo” websites, I am not even referring to those of utmost disgust, but sites that refer to such simple liberties we take for granted in the western world like gay and lesbian rights but in locations like some of the Arab countries. Visiting websites related to certain subjects can get you killed in locations like those… the world has wised up.


So the question about can a VPN provider protect you from the NSA is rather vast and broad. In the article I referenced to at the start of this open response is the justification that a VPN is not capable of protecting you from the NSA, GCHQ or other government organisation because of criminals and those who have committed crime while making use of the services of a VPN. Was anyone ever under the impression that to carry out crime on the internet that the best way to achieve this and avoid the consequences was the sign up to a $6 VPN service? In fact, if this was the general consensus then I am glad its possible to be caught committing crime even when using a VPN. Do I want to exist in a world in which fraudsters, paedophiles and those who commit heinous crime can part with $6 per month and in real world terms, get away with murder?


I imagine no one person has any issue with government organisations making targeted use of technology, in situations that suspicion is evident and the required laws be it a subpoena, court order or other equivalent is sought to carry out such targeting. What the general population does take issue with is blanket recording of data that isn’t under suspicion, the great vacuum of data that has been taking place and this is where a VPN can help.


So let’s take for example you wanted to research something that in your real life you would consider personal, or private, something you might not wish your work colleagues to know about and something you would even rather not discuss with your friends. In the comfort of your own home you search for your required subject, after all, you’re in your own home, the only people who can see what you’re researching are yourself and anyone who is stood behind you. This is when a user has a false sense of privacy, the data that you’re requesting can be vacuumed by a large number of sources, from the government, search engines, the sites that you visit or even networks in-between and with a record of your IP address which can very closely narrow you down to your physical location these organisations and companies can very quickly build up a profile of your use.


Now I’m not sure about everyone but I certainly don’t want my internet use to be attributed to myself, In the physical world I don’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs everywhere I go for any organisation to come behind and vacuum up as they see fit and then record in a database without my permission. A VPN allows me the ability to cloak my actions and even though I am not using the internet to commit crime I live in a country that my privacy is my right, if I wish to protect this privacy by whatever means available then I will certainly do my best to be a part of that system. In general VPN services are run by those who have a keen interest in privacy, encryption and security and secondary is their business commitment. While it is true that if a user committed a crime that is likely to interest the NSA then they may need to hand over whatever details they have stored, if any, but that aside then I entrust them to keep my net “breadcrumb trail” private and to add that extra layer between myself and the government and commercial vacuum that exists.


So while it is true that a VPN may not be able to keep criminals safe from the NSA they can from a networking perspective keep your general daily use, habits, interests and personally identifiable information safe by obscuring your use from the huge and unwarranted data sponge we call law enforcement.


Since when was crime ever a good justification for anything?