from the first-do-no-harm dept
Given the seemingly endless privacy scandals that now engulf the tech and telecom sectors on a near-daily basis, many consumers have flocked to virtual private networks (VPN) to protect and encrypt their data. One study found that VPN use quadrupled between 2016 and 2018 as consumers rushed to protect data in the wake of scandals, breaches, and hacks.
Unfortunately, many consumers are flocking to VPNs under the mistaken impression that such tools are a near-mystical panacea, acting as a sort of bulletproof shield that protects them from any potential privacy violations on the internet. Not only is that not true (ISPs, for example, have a universe of ways to track you anyway), many VPN providers are even less ethical than privacy-scandal-plagued companies or ISPs.
After a repeated few years where VPN providers were found to be dodgy or tracked user data when they claimed they didn’t, professionals have shifted their thinking on recommending even using one. While folks requiring strict security over wireless may still benefit from using a reputable VPN provider, experts say the landscape has changed. Improvements in the overall security of ordinary browsing (bank logins, etc.), plus the risk of choosing the wrong VPN provider, means that many people may just be better off without one:
“It’s time we retire the stock advice to get a personal VPN,” Bob Lord, former chief security officer at the Democratic National Committee, told Motherboard in an email. “Most people do not need personal VPNs today because the internet is much safer than it was in 2010. Personal VPNs create additional risks. Giving everyone advice that only pertains to some people misdirects them from the steps that will actually help them secure their digital lives.”
Granted there are plenty of journalists, government officials, or folks researching dangerous or volatile people who probably still benefit from using a quality VPN. There are also instances where using a VPN can help thwart invasive advertising data tracking:
“There is at least one thing that some VPNs could help with: blocking malicious ads. The online advertising ecosystem is so dangerous that the U.S. Intelligence Community has blocked advertisements on a network-level, Motherboard reported recently. But online ads are not just a threat to intelligence agencies; Motherboard has repeatedly shown how data brokers harvest ‘bidstream’ data by participating in the online advertising process. This sort of information can include location data.”
But as the VPN field has become crowded by dodgy players, just injecting an entirely new dodgy player into your traffic flow isn’t really helping anybody. Especially if you lack the capacity to ferret out which VPN provider is keeping its word, and which is just another shady business collecting, storing, and monetizing your data (while breathlessly insisting they don’t do that).