VPNs are not the interchangeable commodity service they first seem like, giving the user an equal privacy boost regardless of the brand. Even without diving into the technology specifics, there are significant differences between VPNs which can hit users at that very point where they first went for a VPN – personal privacy. That’s why it’s important to know how to choose a VPN provider that will use best practices to ensure your online privacy.
How does a VPN protect your privacy?
An effective and well-managed VPN is an invaluable privacy enhancer that can securely encrypt your online activities, keep your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and/or other parties from reading your messages, and unlock content that’s been restricted based on your geographic location.
One of the ways it does this is by making it impossible to track your actual location. By obscuring your location, you can override geo-blockers and advertisers won’t be able to send you location-based ads. A VPN also ensures that your online activities remain anonymous. No one will know anything about you, like your gender, current location, your email or social media footprint. That also means advertisers don’t have a way to make a profile about you based on the websites you have visited.
Can you trust your VPN provider?
VPNs are often described as a private tunnel for two parties to securely communicate through. And that is not quite right. At Avira, a VPN is described as a registered, certified mail that both the sender and the recipient have to sign for before they can open the envelope The VPN provider is the de facto mail carrier, (hopefully) placing the communication into an encrypted envelope and moving it along securely to its destination. The simple point is, that like a mail carrier – the VPN provider has lots of private information and metadata about who is sending and receiving letters. Yet a critical difference between a post carrier and a VPN provider is that the government usually enforces standards on mail carries. While some magazines might be read and dogeared before they reach their destination – most get there intact. But with VPNs, the definition of what they do and how they do it are far more nebulous. And, there are limited enforcement options for weeding out the suspect ones.
Five privacy points to consider when choosing a VPN provider
1. Does the VPN provider keep logs?
Every VPN provider has access to data about what you do and where you go – whether or not they admit to logging your activities on a moment-by-moment basis. If a VPN provider promises to not log any user data, it’s just that – a promise that that this information is not recorded for posterity. It also is a promise that is impossible for you to verify by yourself.
2. Does the VPN provider sell your data?
Some VPN providers resell data on and about their user’s activities. After all, holding the funnels where data passes through from thousands of users provides them with an interesting stream of data on activities and interests. This can lead to the VPN displaying targeted ads – just the situation VPN users want to avoid in the first place.
3. Does the VPN provider allow government to access your data?
Some VPN marketing is built on allegedly providing you with government (free) data security. Their premise there is that the only really secure VPN is one based in a country which is not party to the 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes Alliance Agreements, where intelligence agencies can exchange information between themselves, tap into VPNs operating in their jurisdiction, and watch everything.
4. Is the VPN provider GDPR compliant?
If a VPN provider is operating in the EU, they are bound to secure and protect data collected from users under the GDPR regulations. Failure to do this means public reporting requirements, potential penalties, and a damaged reputation. This requirement does not exist equally in all countries. Like it or not, GDPR puts the onus on companies based in Europe to be more careful with the private user data collected and stored. Contrast this to companies sited in a no or low-data protection environment.
5. How transparent is my VPN provider?
Transparency matters, especially when it comes to privacy. During 2018, Avira recorded 13 requests for information on Avira Phantom VPN users – which resulted in no disclosures of user information. Even more important, there were no National Security letters, no gag orders, or warrants received from any government organization.