In these days of NSA spying, net neutrality, and internet companies messing with streaming services, a virtual private network, or a VPN, has become an integral part of many people’s internet experience. Though VPNs are becoming more mainstream, there are still people who do not know what a VPN is, or how one is used or what they do.
A VPN, as stated above, is a virtual private network. It allows for encryption of a person’s private data stream. Someone with a VPN can log on and be safe from prying eyes. They are most useful in situations where the network a person wants to use is not trustworthy. Beyond encrypting, though, VPNs can open up a user to a host of other opportunities.
As each set of Olympic Games begins, American viewers complain about having to watch events later than they actually occur. With a VPN, users can access the network to watch programming on the Internet that would normally be blocked in their country. Since the VPN is using a server that is away from the user, all they have to do is choose a server in the country they want, and they will have access. It is pretty useful for watching BBC shows before their American release date.
VPNs can also increase streaming speed for digital services. Netflix believed that Verizon was purposely slowing connection speeds to users at home. When a user connected to Netflix via a VPN, he found that his connection speed was increased dramatically. On the other hand, Hulu blocks access to users outside the United States, and that includes people using VPNs. Many people using VPNs use them for anonymity and leave them on around the clock.
Which leads to the question: What do VPNs really do for security? Do they guard against government spying, like what the NSA might have done according to the recent allegations from Edward Snowden? The short answer: mostly.
The NSA was engaged in monitoring multiple Internet companies like Skype, Google, and Facebook. The NSA would see who people were connecting with, what sites they were visiting, what they were buying off the Internet. If a user is running a VPN through a country that is friendly with the United States, they will more than likely hand over any information that is asked for. There are also questions concerning how much the companies like Facebook really knew about the spying. Was information taken from them without their knowledge, or was it handed over by these companies? Either way, it is not difficult for an agency like the NSA, or even hackers and identity thieves, to be able to trace a user back through a VPN and discover their actual IP address. In addition, things like cookies will still track the sites that people use, giving that information to advertisers.
While a VPN may be a reliable security measure for a normal person using the web, those who want or need more security should probably invest in even more security measures. It is up to each user to protect themselves, and t is most definitely safe to assume that if something is happening on the Internet, someone else knows about it.
Commentary by Bryan Levy