Last Updated on July 1, 2021 by David Baddeley
We live in a highly connected society, in which we rarely have control of the data we produce when browsing the internet. Much of this information is used to show us advertising, but it is also used by our ISP to monitor the behavior of its users . And in more extreme cases, limiting or restricting access to certain content.
One of the coolest cases on this follow-up has been the one starring Starlink in the United States . The company warns that it may suspend the service if it is detected that the subscriber is illegally sharing or downloading content protected by copyright through its satellite internet service. Simply put, Starlink can take action if they detect that the user has repeatedly downloaded hacking .
For most of us, this warning may seem like something new. But the active prosecution of piracy is a very common practice among US operators . So much so, that the consequences range from a simple letter or e-mail, to the suspension of the service or excessive charges .
The central aspect of this situation is the monitoring of our online activity. Although we are not going to go into the moral implications of piracy, we will talk about how to maintain better control over what operators can know about our internet history, and specifically, how to take care of our privacy on the network with a VPN.
How does my operator know my browsing history?
Let’s take a quick example, where we will rent an apartment in a building . A doorman works in the building who is in charge of registering the people or orders that enter and leave there. Always indicating from and to where they are going, at what time they do it, and during what periods of time.
Up to this point, the doorman will have a carefully detailed record of all accesses to the building , as well as of each department visited. In other words, data is being collected by the one who controls the entrance and exit of the building .
The information obtained can be used in various ways and for different purposes. To improve the service, prioritize certain entrances, restrict those that violate certain terms of the building , and even offer it to other merchants in the area so that they “know the customer better” and send them their products.
Transferring the example to today’s topic, we would be the clients , the department would be our modem or internet connection , and the doorman would be our service provider . The other people would be the connections , and the orders would be packages . Lastly, the building would be the entire network infrastructure , and the merchants would be advertising providers and trackers .
Now, suppose that there was some illegal activity in which we are involved, and that doorman , —thanks to the history that he has been developing— alerts us to the problem. And in case the matter is repeated, we will be expelled from the building , because the lease establishes it that way. This is exactly what happens with the majority of operators, although not all go as far as expulsion.
And what use would a VPN have in all of this?
Let’s first quickly define what a VPN is:
A VPN —or Virtual Private Network, is a service that creates a kind of “tunnel” between our devices and one or more servers . These are managed by the company that offers the service, almost always with infrastructure rented from other providers, allowing covering several locations without much problem.
Within our example, the VPN would act as a tunnel between the apartment and any point outside the building . However, this external point would act as a new address for the people or orders we make, as well as everything we send while it is in operation.
Everything that passes through that tunnel will be invisible to the doorman , even if he passes through the reception and reaches the door.
The main difference between having a VPN and not having one is in the way information travels over the network
In this way, all the web traffic that we generate from only one side, travels through a single encrypted connection that leaves from the other end . This will make it impossible for our ISP to know exactly what we are doing at any given moment.
A VPN also serves to bypass regional restrictions on various content , thanks to the possibility of connecting directly to a server located in another country, and everything we consume will be from that location and not the real one.
One of the many scenarios where a VPN can be useful
At the same time, they act as an extra security measure against attackers who seek to interfere with our communications. Hence, they are highly recommended when using public Wi-Fi networks, more than any other network.
How can a VPN protect my privacy?
By establishing a connection with a VPN server, all our traffic will be encrypted or “encapsulated” and ready to be received at the other end. Once the server receives the data, it will decrypt the information and deliver it to where it originally went.
The same process is repeated when we receive the data. Precisely because the server will retrieve the information from the internet, it will encrypt or “encapsulate” it, to send it to our device, where the decryption process will be repeated.
Our service provider will only know that we are linking to a certain server at any given time, but they will not know exactly what we have been doing with that connection . Up to this point, we have already partially secured our browsing history.
The next step is to activate filters to prevent information from being exchanged between different trackers, something that is normally done thanks to a domain name filtering, which we will deal with on another occasion.
This filter prevents the data we have on our device from being sent to the companies that carry out this collection, by responding to access requests with anything else. The normal thing, in any case, is that they respond with a null address, causing the requests to end in a “bottomless pit”.
Can a VPN completely protect me on the internet?
Yes and no.
Keep in mind that a VPN is not a magic security solution that will protect us by itself when browsing the internet. Still, the protection it offers, along with the extra services that many providers include, complicate online activity tracking tasks, as well as other virus-related security issues, quite a bit.
Websites (like the one in the image) are one of the online scams that can be prevented with a good VPN. Source: Bleeping Computer
How? Some of that filtering may include malicious sites or disreputable advertising, two of the attack vectors that fall the most victims. Not only is it extra protection against viruses and other threats, it can also help prevent fraud with this filtering method.
On the other hand, we still have the often mentioned cookies as a tool to save a “history of preferences” on the web pages we visit. The good thing is that many serious VPN services provide extensions for the browser that will precisely take care of eliminating these cookies automatically, although this will depend on how we have everything configured, or on the characteristics that a given service offers us.
What service is best for me?
For that question there is no concrete answer, since it will depend both on the needs of each person, and on 4 main factors to consider:
Modality (free, paid, limited use)
Additional services (such as an ad blocker or website filtering)
Histories (or logs) stored by the VPN
Although there is a fairly extensive catalog of VPNs on the market, a free service will hardly be able to compare with a paid one. Especially when talking about navigation fee, speed, locations and most importantly, reliability.
It is normal for many free VPNs to use advertising to cover their expenses by offering a service at no cost to the user, but they are useless when trying to protect the user’s privacy. In other cases, this problem adds to a very low browsing share, or reduced speeds.
Other services offer the same features as their paid versions, although they set a monthly browsing fee, are reduced to a couple of devices simultaneously, or do not have all the unlocked locations to connect us. These are a good option for users who won’t be using them all the time, or on more than one device at a time.
Finally, paid VPNs are the most reliable and robust option when we seek to better protect ourselves when browsing. Not only do they have better speeds, more servers or an unlimited quota, but the data retention policy is usually stricter on the information that is saved.
If a VPN service does not have a sufficiently secure protocol, it is more difficult for the data to reach end-to-end without being “checked” by an intermediary. On the contrary, an extremely secure protocol could bring penalties in speed and latency, precisely because of the amount of processing applied for its transport and / or decryption.
The ideal thing in this section is to look for an alternative that has a protocol such as OpenVPN or IKEv2, to balance between functionalities, speed and security. Of course, most of the VPN providers oriented to the common user, have solved this problem, and it will not be mandatory to worry so much about it.
A little parenthesis is necessary on how a VPN protects our privacy. And it is that, beyond changing our location on the internet, not all services are capable of stopping the so-called “trackers” that monitor our activity, although more and more companies incorporate mechanisms against them.
Control panel of Windscribe, VPN that allows to select the elements to block
In most cases, these mechanisms are implemented as optional features within the subscription, while others have them enabled as standard. Among these services, we can configure an ad blocker, website filtering and parental control, as well as a block of trackers and “social buttons” that carry out a more extreme monitoring of the user.
Histories (or logs) stored by the service
We can have a very fast VPN, with an extremely secure protocol and many added services to improve browsing, but none of that is beneficial for our privacy if the company in charge keeps all our browsing and connection history. Especially if that company gives the records to internet providers or governments that request them.
In this regard, it is best that we carefully review the information storage policy of the VPN that seems most attractive to us, and compare it with other options to make the final decision. This policy is normally found in the Frequently Asked Questions (or FAQ) section.
As we have mentioned on other occasions, the best option is the one that best suits our needs, and in this case, it will be the one that has a good balance between speed, security and cost, without neglecting the additional features.