The Practice of Privacy: Get a VPN!

Not using a Virtual Private Network is like walking down Main Street wearing a t-shirt with your name and home address on the front and your browser history on the back.
– Mikko Hyppönen, CRO, F-Secure

In a previous post about internet privacy I mentioned David Geer, a security expert who had a pretty interesting definition of privacy: the effective capacity to misrepresent yourself.

The problem with Just Plain Internet connections is that they remove a pretty big chunk of that capacity. When you log onto the web – like I am right now – there is an “IP address” associated with your connection. It doesn’t even have to be intentionally logging on – anytime an app has asked you if it can “use your location” to serve you better, remember that it is also serving others.

But I Use Incognito/Safe Browsing! (and other fallacies)

It’s one of the most misunderstood parts of that particular innovation on browsers. Google tries to tell you: “ Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your internet service provider, or the websites you visit.” What it does is hide your browsing from the computer you’re on right now (though a recent interview with a security expert I know revealed it doesn’t really even do that).

It’s worth reading more about, but even with that understanding, you need to realize that your laptop is not your house – which means you don’t have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” if you connect to the internet. I’m not just talking about “public” wifi – nope, in the process of catching some truly awful people the FBI also got a judge to rule that since any computer connected to the web can be hacked, you can’t assume that your 4th Amendment rights extend to that.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is urging legislators to create some safeguards so that this right won’t be abused…but as of December, nothing had changed.

Look at it this way: every time you open your laptop, imagine you have three people standing behind you. One is an FBI Agent. One is AmaGoogleBook. And one is a Russian hacker.

Comforting, eh?

A Virtual Private Network Helps

Getting a VPN is something like “…becoming an online ninja” according to one IT engineer. What it does is route your internet through a server somewhere you’re not. So instead of standing behind you, those three are standing behind a computer across the country. Also (to take the analogy a bit too far) you’re wearing a blanket, because the really good VPNs also encrypt your data, and they can’t tell as easily what you’re doing.

Notice I said “as easily”. The websites you visit still know you’re there, what you’re looking at, what movies you watch or articles you read or apps you download. But they don’t know as much about your location, or what you’re using to browse. In short, you have a measure of privacy.

The best thing, in my opinion, about using a VPN as opposed to other security techniques is that it’s easy and cheap. In fact, some of the pricier ones cost less than $7/month, and that’s for covering your phone, tablet, and laptop (and others).

There are also free VPNs, but if you go that route I’ve found you might run into problems in terms of speed and connectivity. On the other hand, I’ve been using IPVanish for several months with absolutely no problems, and I only switched to FreeDome because I needed to cover more devices. Neither of those services pays me anything to recommend them, by the way – I just like them. Installing either one is simple, and they just work.

But do your own research; it’s your information, after all. The peace of mind is worth $7/month to me. To end with another quote from Mr. Hyppönen:

You might think you have nothing to hide – but the fact is, you have everything to protect.

Got something better? Please let me know!

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