It wasn’t so long ago that a Virtual Private Network (VPN) was only the realm of the uber-geek, or simply for network administrators, lording over their company networks. Nowadays, every man and his dog uses a VPN. You could probably type in ‘dog uses VPN’ into YouTube and come up with hits. [Edit: No, but you can find DOG VPN videos… so if you’re looking for a YouTube niche to start targeting, then you’re welcome!]
Welcome to the watched era
So, what has fuelled this blossoming of VPNs and obscuring where our network traffic is going to and coming from? Ah yes, Big Brother, the Orwellian dystopian nightmare from 1984, where we are all being watched, has actually come to life. Governments, enterprises, ISPs and criminals, all with the ability to spy on us through our internet traffic footprint.
Of course, there are other reasons for using a VPN that aren’t simply for trying to keep our increasingly diminished privacy.
We don’t all care about someone looking over our shoulder, sometimes we just want to watch the news
VPNs are also widely used for accessing region-blocked content, streaming from other countries, visiting websites prohibited by your ISP or government, accessing online casinos offering no deposit bonuses in blocked countries or to continue to gamble when travelling to blocked countries (try these if you’re in another country), using blocked services such as torrenting; there are a whole manner of reasons to use a VPN, both legal, illegal, and teetering on the gray area. Your dad probably uses a VPN to watch BBC News if he doesn’t live in the UK.
What we see across the VPN landscape today is a huge choice of commercial options. These are VPN services such as ExpressVPN that make it easy for even the least tech-savvy among us to use a VPN. It’s simply download, install, pick a VPN location, and away you go. They even work on phones, and some have browser add-ons alongside their native apps.
VPNs are now for everyone, and most people are aware they need one for various reasons. But how did we get to this point?
What happened to Tor?
If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely a fellow geek, which means you’ll be familiar with Tor. Tor is the privacy network layered over the internet, with ‘hidden services’ available, as well as access to the regular web, where your traffic is obscured.
Tor is what we used for traffic obfuscation before commercial VPNs made us all lazy. But why the preference of commercial VPNs over Tor? Because Tor is not as fast to use. It’s not a flick of a button and you’re done. Traffic is slow over the network. It’s still there, have no doubt about it, but its use for simple privacy purposes? We’d hedge bets that it’s gone down significantly.
When is a VPN not a VPN?
The issue with VPNs when used for privacy purposes is that they aren’t necessarily private. Unless you do your homework, you could wind up with your traffic data being sold off to the highest bidder anyway. Or even your bandwidth being sold off for use in a botnet, ala Hola, circa 2015! These types of occurrences are particularly true of free VPNs. (Non) buyer beware!
So, the first point to be aware of: nobody is giving you a VPN for free. Why would a company put resources into something for nothing? If there is a lot of advertising splashed across the VPN and it’s making your network run slow then maybe you’re getting something for ‘free,’ but who can be quite sure.
The next thing of concern to privacy advocates is VPN logging. If a VPN keeps details of traffic, plus can link your IP address to you personally, then they know who you are. Is this a problem? Well, it depends how much you trust the company – plus also what jurisdiction the company (and their servers) fall under.
For instance, a VPN registered in the US who keeps logs can be compelled under law to hand over their data. If they don’t hand over the data (if they have the data on file) then they may be committing a crime. If they hand over the data and you’ve committed a crime (like copyright infringement by pirating the latest season of your favorite TV show) then you might be in trouble too. Not being aware that something is a crime is no excuse, either!
Those in the know check a VPN company’s credentials very thoroughly and do their background research to make sure that they aren’t walking into a flawed setup. Of course, if you’re only switching your VPN on and off to watch BBC News you probably don’t care too much.
Where to from here?
It’s likely that we will see the rise of more niche VPNs from here. For the moment, the landscape is fairly flat, with a few main large competitors, and plenty of smaller companies. Most VPNs go for the lowest common denominator, so they grab the largest market share and thus make the most money. However, the internet itself is changing and morphing into something different than it used to be, so we’re likely to see VPNs become a little more diverse in nature too. The future of VPNs? Watch this space.