Over the past decade, our online information privacy has been synonymous with digital privacy. All our online activities are being monitored either by our Internet service providers or (supposedly) the government's spy departments. With so many security threats lurking in the online sphere, the desire to stay safe is nearly a compulsion.
Telecom companies and advertisers have always sought users' private online data. As the most recent move in the online privacy game, President Donald Trump has signed legislation that will give Internet service providers (ISPs) complete control over their customers' digital privacy. Now, these ISPs can legally sell our confidential Internet browsing data to commercial companies without our knowledge or permission.
For average online citizens, this is an assault on their digital privacy rights — if they still had any. While online identities sit on the brim of theft, people must know more about the deeper and darker Internet waters.
What Can Be Done?
A lot of Internet users already know that a virtual private network (VPN) is a popular data-shielding tool. A VPN allows individuals to protect sensitive information by securing a public connection to a private network. Any data that is traveling through a VPN is encrypted so that users can be protected against probable hacking attacks or the theft of crucial data.
Many online visitors prefer to use proxy servers to improve their online security. Though not reliable for complete security, these proxy servers are mostly available for free. Alternatively, many users choose to access the Internet through Tor in order to keep their browsing habits anonymous.
Now that you have some options, let's dig deeper by looking into the major pros and cons of using a VPN for your online privacy and security.
If you haven't yet, consider getting a VPN service for your personal use. (Note that many organizations provide a business VPN to support remote employees.) Following are the pros of using a VPN service:
- High-end encryption, aka heightened security. Regardless of the device used to access the Internet, VPN encrypts all in-transit data. In the wake of recent laws signed by the U.S. president, it would be safe to say that VPNs will save you from snooping spy agencies.
- Geographical freedom. You can disguise your location and access restricted Internet portals that are otherwise not available in your country.
- Safe download of crucial files. I use the term "crucial" for files here because I mean serious business. A legitimate business can save the integrity of its valuable and confidential data by sharing files over a secure VPN connection.
- Secure public Wi-Fi. If you are using a public Wi-Fi, better use a VPN for browsing to protect your personal information.
Every good thing in the world has some downsides. Similarly, using a VPN service has some disadvantages.
- Speed, performance, and cost. Good encryption always introduces an element of lag. Using a VPN service can slow down your Internet connection's speed because of the processing power required for encryption. If you want to get an optimal connection speed, you will have to pay for a decent commercial VPN service.
- Security loopholes. VPNs aren't entirely secure, yet you need a reliable VPN server to stay safe online. Again, you'll need to pay for it, although not heavily. So, if you want to be protected, be ready to pay for a decent VPN service.
- Click-bait VPN providers. A lot of free VPN apps are available for Android and Apple devices, and it's easy to be lured into installing and using them. However, some of these free apps are actually fake VPN services that may put your online data and security at risk by either collecting and selling your personal information or just not doing the work they claim to do (like protecting critical data).
Our social networking habits continue to threaten and undermine the protection of our privacy online. Mammoth social networks cannot be prevented from tracking our data because they have our consent through their terms of service. With the end of federal online privacy rules, an individual's location, wealth, and health data — at a minimum — are at risk. To mitigate the potential consequences, consumers will first need to realize the extent of the invasion of their personal information. We cannot just trust a VPN service to do the job, but we have no better options, either.
The law signed by President Trump has one major positive effect, however. Now, people are concerned about protecting their online activities. Also, the VPN market is expected to grow substantially larger.
Some other minor things affect our Internet privacy, too — ads. Using an ad blocker might be wise in this security landscape and should be considered seriously. Just be aware of the potential negative changes in customer service and personalized messaging from the online companies with which you interact — they make a lot of money from serving ads to visitors.
Using VPNs and other tools to protect your security and privacy online entails a long list of benefits, like partial anonymity, transfer speed, data security, the freedom to spoof your geographical location, etc. But, in talking about shielding your privacy, remember that everything has its upsides and downsides. So do your research before selecting the VPN that works best for you. If interested, you can check out the best VPN services available in the market.
And don't refrain from spending money for tools like VPNs, proxies, ad blockers, and other paid services if you truly want to stay anonymous while surfing the Internet. Paid subscriptions and services are nearly always better than the free options.
In a nutshell, data is the most important property for any online individual as well as the large-scale commercial companies operating in the global arena. Every effort must be made to safeguard these digital assets. So, if you really aspire to address this privacy issue effectively, be careful and perceptive of the digital eavesdropping that is happening around us.
John Mason is a cybersecurity and privacy enthusiast currently writing for TheBestVPN.com.
© 2017 John Mason. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.