Virtual Private Networks Prevent Internet Service Providers from Seeing User Browsing

VPNs are one solution that consumers can use to help protect their privacy online

Virtual Private Networks Prevent Internet Service Providers from Seeing User Browsing
Image: Pixabay
March 30, 2017

In a move condemned by privacy advocates around the country, the U.S. Congress voted this week to reverse regulations preventing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from selling consumers' web-browsing data without their explicit authorization.

President Trump is expected to sign off on the rollback.

The reversal benefits ISPs but may harm consumers who do not want information about how they surf the web to be seen, much less sold, by a third party. Fortunately, these consumers can still act to protect their privacy in a few ways, one of which is known as the virtual private network (VPN).

What Is a VPN?

The VPN is a middleman between you and the Internet. It encrypts your connection before it leaves your browsing device, and your information stays encrypted while traveling through your ISP's network to the VPN's server. Once it gets there, it is decrypted and sent off to the Internet.

The key is in how your encrypted information appears to your ISP. To it, it looks like you only visit one website—the VPN server—over and over again.

This feature adds another facet to the popularity of the VPN, which is often used for security purposes. Businesses use them to allow employees working remotely to access their work network securely. The same principle applies for anyone using a public Wi-Fi network, such as at a hotel or coffee shop. They also allow users to get around location-based restrictions and government blackouts to access restricted content.

Disadvantages of the VPN

There are also disadvantages to using a VPN, as Wired notes. For example, when you use a VPN, you're entrusting it with the same information you want to hide from your ISP. Your ISP may not be able to watch what you do online, but your VPN can.

For this reason, you need to make sure that the company behind the VPN is trustworthy, which is not easy to verify. Does the company keep logs of your activity? If so, it may not be as focused on your privacy as you want it to be. You can find out the company's policy on disclosing user information by checking its Terms of Service.

Even then, companies make mistakes. They might misrepresent its logging practices or accidentally keep user information longer than they mean to. It is also common to find scam VPNs, especially for mobile VPNs. Make sure yours actually provides the service it says it does.

In addition, VPNs can also slow down Internet connections since they insert themselves in between you and the Internet. Finally, some websites—such as Netflix—will not work with most VPNs because they allow users to get around location-based restrictions on content.

Choosing a VPN

If you decide that a VPN is worth the potential hassles and risks, make sure to choose a trustworthy one. One way to improve the likelihood that your choice is reliable is to choose one that you have to pay for. VPNs that are completely free may or may not have the resources to provide the security that it claims to.

Sergiu Candja, CEO of mid-sized VPN CactusVPN, has advice for consumers trying to find a good network. He recommends finding out the company's policy on logs and information disclosure, choosing a smaller company less likely to be targeted for having access to large amounts of valuable information, and using a network based in another country.