From government offices to companies to anonymous hackers, the internet has become a nest of prying eyes. Data has become a commodity—from companies engaging in data sharing deals to government surveillance of online activity and data harvesting. With the public becoming more aware of the importance of data privacy, the Virtual Private Network (VPN) industry has seen an increase of users with a quarter of the 76 million internet users in the Philippines utilizing a VPN service—whether paid or free.
Although VPNs are considered important tools for safe web browsing, it is not without its problems. The VPN industry is one fogged by nefarious scams, false advertising, and unconsented data sharing. Despite promising protection from those who would use your data in dubious matters, some of these softwares are questionable. Finding trustworthy providers would require knowledge on the inner workings of the technology and on how VPN companies deliver their services—something that not all consumers are privy to.
An encrypted road
The question of how a VPN works can be understood easily by a simple analogy made by MDN Web Docs, an online resource for developers.
Imagine a house as the computer, a shop as the web server, and the road as your internet connection. Accessing a website would be comparable to going out of the house to buy something in the shop, with the road serving as the link between them. However, the road is exposed as bystanders can see your location and actions. When visiting a website without protection, people see your activity and location.
With a VPN, however, any data that is sent over the internet is masked as a new “route” is created. According to Computer Technology Department Assistant Professor Arlyn Ong, this route is protected by encryption, meaning it preserves confidentiality by translating a message into a code, which only the communicating parties with the “secret key” can decipher decipher and read.
In other words, data is encrypted when it leaves the user’s computer; after it reaches the VPN servers, it is decrypted and sent to the intended destination. Thus, when others try to look, they will only see the data coming from the VPN server. Continuing with the analogy, instead of going to the shop directly, the user will be rerouted to a hidden passage toward another shop—which is the VPN server in this context—who will hire a separate entity to go to the shop in the user’s stead and retrieve what is needed.
Cracks in the shield
VPNs can easily promise “military-grade” privacy and protection, which is “just a marketing strategy”, according to Ong. The challenge of finding reputable services remains as there is an abundance of both reliable and suspicious VPN services in the market. Some VPN services have major security risks since they come with malware-intrusive programs designed to infiltrate and damage computers to gain unauthorized access to data.
Further, there exists a dichotomy between free and paid VPN services, as the former is generally considered unsafe. Free VPN companies require income to maintain their servers, and many eventually resort to utilizing aggressive targeted advertisements through data harvesting, as reported by Forbes. Moreover, Top10VPN’s 2019 research revealed that, 86 percent of VPN apps available on Google Play and the Apple App Store store have major privacy flaws such as insufficient privacy policies. These providers try to put customers at ease by advertising “no logging” policies, promising users that personal information will not be stored.
However, the usage of terms such as “no logs”, “zero logs”, or “logless” can be misleading; the process of logging is not the sole way to extract personal information. VPN apps may not log internet protocol addresses—a specific string of numbers assigned to any device that connected to the internet or a network of computers—but may still keep usage logs containing information on what and how data is transferred.
Right now, the VPN industry is still an unruly labyrinth of unchecked practices due to the lack of regulation. Finding the right VPN can be a struggle, especially with the gap of quality between free and paid VPNs. Availing of a free service might prove to be risky, encouraging individuals like Adriel Amoguis (I, CS-ST) to use paid VPN services. “Most freeware VPNs cannot keep up [with my needs] since their paid counterparts are superior in security and speed,” he shares on his experience between free and paid VPN services. However, investing in paid services can be a financial burden, as it costs an average of P3,000 a year. Amoguis himself spends at least P6,000 a year, more than the average price of paid VPNs.
Luckily, VPNs are not the only option for protecting one’s data. “Good online habits are also good for protecting privacy,” Ong advises, emphasizing practices such as visiting only reputable sites, keeping passwords secure, and limiting the personal information one posts online.
Being mindful of the strengths and failings of these services will benefit consumers as they traverse the internet. While there is no definite and failsafe solution in protecting one’s data completely, practicing responsible browsing can be a fair start.