What is a VPN?
This article was revised on May 9, 2017.
VPN is short for Vampires Prowl Nightly. So if you plan to go out when it’s dark we suggest you carry a large cross, a mallet and a big wooden stake. Your best bet is to stay indoors when it’s dark, keep a lot of lights on, and lock your doors. If you need to get beer or something, wait until the sun comes up; vampires do not prowl in daylight; they sleep.
Nah. We’re just kidding you. VPN stands for Virtual Private Networks. Most of you are, right now, connected to the Internet directly. Everything you do online is being logged by your ISP… that means all your searches, all your chats, all your downloads, all your uploads, all your Facebook posts, everything you type, say, watch or do goes through your ISP. And they log every bit of everything you do. Now, with recent government changes and new FCC Boss Ajit Pai in charge, they can sell your data to whomever they please. So, not only does your ISP know everything you do online, they now have the legal right to sell your data to whomever they please.
If you’re using a VPN, the only thing your ISP sees is that you’re connected to a server somewhere; what happens on the other server, stays on the other server. So, think of it as kind of like Las Vegas. Assuming that the VPN server you;re connected to encrypts your data and does not keep logs — no one can track your activities, log your search and buying happens, or snoop on your chats and downloads. That’s in theory at least – the NSA probably sees all anyway…but your ISP is not the NSA.
But, here’s a caveat: Can you trust your VPN service any more than you trust your ISP? That’s a question for which you won’t easily find an answer. There is no regulation of VPN services. They can tell you they don’t log your activities, but if you commit a crime online, you don’t expect that the VPN is going to pay for your sins, do you? You will have no assurance other than the VPN service’s word that your activities are not being logged and/or your browsing history is not being sold.
Think of a VPN as a tunnel. Let’s say you’re in Richmond, Va., USA and you’re using a VPN client like Open VPN. You choose a VPN server in Brussels, Belgium. The VPN client creates a tunnel from your computer to the VPN server in Belgium, and that becomes your Internet connection – your point of entry to the World Wide Web. Sites you visit will see your IP address (which has been changed from your real IP address) and think that you’re accessing the Internet from Brussels, Belgium. You may see that the search engine is in French or whatever it is they speak over there in Brussels (German? French? Belgiumese? ) And your poor, innocent ISP? All they know is that you are connected to a server in Belgium. All your data is encrypted, leaving your ISP sobbing and whining – and they will move on to someone easier to spy on — someone more fun than you. But then again, that does not mean you’re not being spied upon. It does not mean you’re not being logged. It means you have now placed your trust in a VPN service… is that better than trusting your ISP?
VPNs secure your internet activities and allow you to transfer files, written communications, chats, download files, make online purchases, search and browse the Web under a cloak of anonymity. But none of this prevents your VPN service from tracking you, logging you, or selling your information. You only have their word they don’t.
A free VPN may be more tempted to use the data collected to make money from its users, and what better way, in the current political climate, than collecting and selling personal data collected from its users.
The Internet is changing, and we’re all going to have to find ways of coping with it.