What exactly is a VPN? The technology has been making plenty of headlines in the last few weeks with China and Russia clamping down on the software, which allows users to circumvent censorship, online content blocks, and encrypt their internet browsing.
VPNs give users an extra layer of security online by encrypting their traffic and obscuring their IP address through data transfer protocols such as PPTP, OpenVPN, and L2TP/IPSec. It’s an effective way to add more security when using public Wi-Fi or accessing geo-restricted content but more importantly, the technology can be used by people to overcome government content blocks both in the developing and developed world.
Russia’s proposed rules are still not completely clear—it appears the law will attempt to force VPN providers into blocking certain sites—but the Kremlin has form in online censorship, recently blocking LinkedIn for not bowing to its local data storage regulation.
China, unsurprisingly, has been much harsher, looking to outright ban the use of VPN software.
Apple drew much criticism when it caved to China’s ways and removed several VPN apps from the App Store thus making it much harder for people to source this technology.
Amid reports that authorities in China had forced Chinese developers to cease making their VPN software, Apple CEO Tim Cook rationalized its move to meet China’s demands as simply obeying the law of the land.
“We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business,” said Tim Cook, adding that he hopes the restrictions will be rolled back in the future. However that is likely a hopeless thought when discussing China and an attempt from Apple to deflect criticisms.
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China’s internet censorship, or the Great Firewall, continually purges the Chinese web of any dissent or protest. Software like VPNs, which have become more and more abundant and easier to use, are no longer the preserve of the technically savvy and allowed Chinese internet users to browse views, opinions, and content from the West, much to the disdain of the government. Cracking down on anti-censorship tools in China may not be new, but this latest raft of actions includes potential fines against people who use VPNs.
Russia’s and China’s actions will be a kick in the teeth for commercial VPN companies, of which there are many.
Many have responded with condemnation while others have launched campaigns around internet privacy and freedom, such as Unblock The Web by SaferVPN. These campaigns are all morally worthy but of course, commercial VPNs have a business interest in running the campaigns as well.
Not all VPNs may be what they seem either. Most recently, Hotspot Shield, one of the biggest names in the VPN market found itself in hot water. It has been accused of intercepting its users’ traffic, essentially undermining the very protections that a VPN claims to offer, and redirecting users’ HTTP requests to partner websites.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital privacy rights group, has requested that the FTC investigate the company and how it operates its technology. Anchor Free, the company behind Hotspot Shield, denied the allegations that it wrongly intercepts and redirects traffic but it did however reiterate that its free version of the software is ad-supported.
The Effect On How You Use VPNs
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It raises questions for any VPN user about how much trust you can place in a VPN. Fundamentally, it’s a good technology that everyone should be using to add an additional layer of security but users should scrutinize any and all VPN service providers on the market to make sure they’re right for you.
Other VPNs have raised concerns over their ownership. UK-based HideMyAss was one of the bigger VPN services out there until it was acquired by antivirus firm AVG, which was then acquired by Avast. Once a VPN service, like any company, has been acquired, its ethos may change. It’s something to bear in mind.
VPNs are also not exempt from the old mantra that if something is free, you are the product but a number of high profile security companies have started to offer free versions of their software to encourage more people to be security conscious. The makers of Protonmail, an encrypted email service headquartered in Switzerland, recently launched its own VPN but insists that its free tier is still secure, though users will have access to much fewer servers.
Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab launched a free version of its Android VPN app earlier this month. Another thing to bear in mind: Kaspersky has found itself in the limelight facing down allegations from US officials that it collaborates with the Kremlin on possible hacking. The company vociferously denies all these allegations but it serves as another item to add to your VPN criteria before signing up.
Like any piece of software, VPNs are not perfect and can be vulnerable too. Of course, the prevailing attitude towards VPNs in the security community is positive, but not all VPNs are equal. If you use a VPN, be wary of any software that over-promises on security. Nothing is 100 percent secure.