Cyber Security Awareness Month – VPNs
Quick! What is a VPN? Do you even know? Are your using one? Is it free or are you paying for it? Well if you don’t know what a VPN is then forget the other questions.
What is a VPN?
A VPN or virtual private network is a private network that uses the public internet. It allows you to send and receive data across public networks as if your computer is directly connected to a private network. Applications, like your web browser, running across a VPN benefit from the functionality, security, and management of the private network. This mean that your data is usually encrypted. No one can see what you are doing and can’t read the data. So essentially your activity is secret from anyone who might be snooping. Like who you ask. How about your ISP? We’ll get back to that in a minute.
A VPN has become an essential tool for using the internet. Why? Well first nearly every website you go to collects some information about you. And that information can be shared with others. Another fact to keep in mind is that you leave a cookie trail around the internet that allows advertisers to track what you are looking at and what you are shopping for.
Your ISP is in your business
Now about your ISP; they are watching everything you do online. Let me explain. In order to get to a website you need a domain name. That’s the www.thatcompany.com you use online. That name is translated into a URL address that looks something like this 22.214.171.1241. That where the DNS comes into the game.
A DNS, or Domain Name Server, is a server that translates your website request into a URL address and hooks you up. Now who owns that DNS server? Who can see everything you do online? Who know where you shop, what are your medical or personal issues, what your children or spouse is doing online? You guessed it; your ISP. Because, A) you are using their DNS server and B) you’re not using a VPN. Got it now?
The truth of the matter is that congress has made it perfectly OK for ISP’s to gather and sell you information to whoever they wish. Now you know why you need a VPN.
VPNs are necessary because hackers are waiting for you to log and do your shopping or banking. They are waiting in Starbucks, Panera Bread or any place that offers free wifi. Because they know you are not using a VPN so they can log on and watch everything that is passing through that free wifi router. When they see a banking password or user name or any password for that matter, they will intercept it, sell it or use it themselves.
VPNs are not created equal
But VPNs are not all the same. Like all things in the marketplace there are varying degrees of quality and service. Some are free others are charged on a monthly basis. Some have excellent encryption other not so much. Some have logs of who is using the VPN and where they go online while still others keep no logs at all.
But like everything you buy you get what you pay for and if you are going with a free VPN you need to be extra careful. There are several problems you need to be aware of with free VPNs. they include;
- Data limitations – Not all VPNs offer unlimited data. Limitations could be as little 500MB a month. That’s enough for checking your bank account and a little shopping but not full time protection which is what you need. Most free VPN plans are nothing more than a lure to get you in the door to sell you more stuff. But still monthly VPN plans can be very affordable. Some plans are as low as $1.99 a month. But again, you get what you pay for.
- Data logging – Why use a VPN if your service is going to keep records? That kinda goes against the whole idea of online privacy. The idea is to use the internet in complete secrecy. But many cheap or free VPNs will log records of your activity. The best VPNs don’t do any tracking, or log where you’ve been. But free VPNs aren’t so discreet. According to a recent study by the Australian company, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), 75% of free VPN apps have at least one tracking library embedded in their software, with the worst offenders having more than five.
- Lousy security – The best thing about a VPN is its ability to protect you against cybercrime. Unfortunately not all free VPN service providers place a high value on security. According to CSIRO, 38% of the 283 VPNs studied were infected with some form of malware. Free VPNs need to make money so they use advertising. So most malware they use is for advertising purposes. Some of the worst offenders are EasyVPN and Betternet, both of whom promise unlimited access for free. But you have to be suspicious of any company that offers you a free unlimited service. How are they making money?
- Using you to make money – So how do these VPNs make money? Well they make be using you and your internet connection without you knowing they are even doing it. Hola VPN turned their free customers’ devices into exit nodes. This means your device becomes the point at which encrypted traffic enters the internet. How do they do it? A bug inside their free VPN package enables them to access your device as a free user using your bandwidth for the customers that pay. In other words, someone else is accessing the internet from your IP address. The danger is that whatever they are doing will be traced back to you making you accountable for their dirty deeds.
- VPN slowdown – Most VPN services cause some slow down and a lot of that depends on the amount of traffic. However free VPNs tend to have a much more noticeably impact on your browsing speed and that impact is negative. Remember you get what you pay for. For example ProtonVPN gives their paying subscribers priority leaving free users to creep through cyberspace at significantly reduces speeds. Still other free VPN services allow so much advertising that your browser become sluggish. Add to this your ISPs advertised speed, which is rarely accurate by the way, and potential throttling of your data if you use a lot and your connection speed could become a joke.
- Advertising unlimited – We did say free VPN didn’t we? Let me clear that up. How about advertising supported VPN? Free VPN hits you with a barrage of advertsing that lead to slower service. Add to that, seeing a screenful of advertising every time you go on to a VPN is just annoying as hell. Some companies claim not to show adverts at all. Now here is the real danger of advertiser supported VPNs. These ads can cause you to click on malicious sites and are also an indication that your VPN service may be sharing information about your online activity with other third parties.
But there is one more little tidbit of information if you use a free VPN. They have, and continue to be, the target of hackers.
In July of this year the personal details of millions of users of free VPN providers have potentially been exposed in a data breach exposing an estimated 1 billion online records.
Which VPNs were hit? Those include UFO VPN, Fast VPN, Free VPN, Super VPN, Flash VPN, Secure VPN and Rabbit VPN and others. But in the interest of fairness you need to know that free VPNs are not the only target of hackers. One the most popular VPN services, Nord VPN, reported that it was hacked in 2018.
Now you know.