Tech Talk: VPNs Can Be Effective For Improved Privacy

Privacy concerns have existed with regard to the internet since people first started logging in and the creation of virtual private networks (VPNs) are one method users have found to ease their minds, but there exist several complications to what otherwise looks like a simple solution. In effect, VPNs act as a buffer between your device and other entities, such as your ISP, through the use of encryption and by masking your IP address. The data remains encrypted until it reaches the chosen VPN provider's server, where the data itself is sent out to the Internet. That means that the ISP and anybody sitting near you will need to find a way to decrypt the information if they somehow manage to snag it in transit. Though it obviously isn't a perfect safeguard against the theft or use of anything a user posts directly to the internet via social media or otherwise, if they're set up correctly and, in some cases, if the appropriate secondary tools are also used, VPNs can serve to meet the needs of users with privacy concerns both for PC users and for Android users. However, not all VPN are created equal and one's data is not safe just by using one.

There is also no guarantee that any is held up to any kind of standard at all since VPNs are unregulated. By using a VPN service, a user is effectively deciding to trust that virtual network's provider over trusting the ISP they are currently using, whether it is for their home internet or the free Wi-Fi provided at their local coffee shop. That's because a VPN provider will still be able to see all of your web traffic and data, with all of the same risks associated with data leaks, misuse, or shoddy encryption. In fact, some research has shown that many VPNs either don't encrypt at all - 18 percent of VPN apps on Android - or use outdated encryption methods. Around 84 percent of the VPN Android apps studied were shown to have leaked data. VPNs can also log the data themselves for their own use, so it is a good idea to research the various offerings before committing and to include research into whether any "logging" is done by a given VPN. That way, you will be well aware of any policy about what is being logged and who will or may have access to those logs. Although a service's total number of users does not always correlate with safety or privacy, it is also a good policy to use a VPN that many others are using. It is far easier for a large group to hold a service's providers accountable than it is for a small group or a single user.

A more prominent problem with the use of VPNs is that they can and sometimes do leak data. That data can, unfortunately, include a user's IP address. That, in turn, can be used to find all of the data associated with that IP address, nullifying the point of a VPN entirely. Thankfully, there is a relatively easy way to see if a user's VPN is leaking their IP address. A number of sites, a quick google search for "What is my IP address?" provides a wealth of free options, provide a good means for checking. If a user first checks his or her IP address through one of those sites without the VPN service enabled, a second check - with VPN enabled - should return an IP address that is different from the first.

It should be also noted that VPNs do not serve as protection against ad-tracking. There are secondary tools that help accomplish that. They also can, but don't always, affect the apparent speed of the user's internet because of latency from the added stop to the data's route - namely that it has to make a pit-stop at the VPN's server first, slightly increasing server response times. The change isn't drastic by any means but is worth noting. The recent uptick in concerns about privacy may be attributable to changes in policy of the incumbent administration and Internet-associated external governing bodies. Internet service providers (ISPs) have previously had some limitations in place, preventing the direct selling of their user's data for a profit without the user's consent. The U.S. House of Representatives changed that with a vote earlier this year. So, if you're looking for a way to protect your online data a bit more securely, looking into using one of the vast numbers of VPNs available is probably the place to start. That said, it is only as effective as the amount of research a user is willing to conduct to find one that is reliable and whose history and logging policies better suit the needs of the user.

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About the Author
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Daniel Golightly

Senior Staff Writer
Daniel has been writing for AndroidHeadlines since 2016. As a Senior Staff Writer for the site, Daniel specializes in reviewing a diverse range of technology products and covering topics related to Chrome OS and Chromebooks. Daniel holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering and has a background in Writing and Graphics Design that drives his passion for Android, Google products, the science behind the technology, and the direction it's heading. Contact him at [email protected]
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