Toolbox 2, articles to read and try
Duration: approx. 30 min
Lesson: Install your first VPN service
VPNs are sand in the gears of the big tech companies.
I was undecided whether to include VPNs in the Privacy Toolbox or not. Some providers of VPNs and also dubious comparison portals usually suggest VPN = anonymity. Sadly, that is not correct. However, there are a number of very useful use cases for a VPN service. One is to protect your identity and data on public wifi.
Using a VPN solution does not guarantee anonymity on the net.
What is a VPN? Ein VPN erzeugt einen virtuelle, private und verschlüsselte Verbindung von deinem Endgerät zum Server des VPN-Anbieters. This is also called a tunnel.
The VPN service then replaces your IP address with the IP address of your chosen server and only then calls up your desired connection (e.g. a website).
What can I use a VPN for?
(1) In public W-LANs (e.g. in hotels), a VPN connection is an additional security layer to protect your identity and your data, as the data is otherwise transmitted there unencrypted.
(2) To circumvent artificial Internet barriers.
a) In authoritarian countries like China, Russia or North Korea, the Internet is heavily censored. Citizens have limited access to free information on the Internet. Services such as Facebook or Google cannot be reached. VPN services can help to jump over such artificial, virtual walls.
b) Another kind of arbitrariness from the commercial sector is to only allow certain Internet content such as videos, websites or offers from online shops to users in certain geographical regions. This goes against the original idea of a free Internet. For example, YouTube may only want to show a certain music video to US users, or products in a shop in Poland are more expensive for people from France (regardless of shipping).
How do you use the VPN service in this case?
In case a) you want to escape from geography . For example, if you go online in a public WLAN in Moscow, you will receive an IP address that is assigned to the geography of the Russian Federation. If you want to access a website that has been blocked by the Russian government, you can’t get there. But if you switch a VPN service in between and select a German VPN server, for example, the VPN service creates an encrypted connection to the German VPN server, which exchanges the Russian IP address for a German one and you can start from there access censored content. Well, at least as long as the IP addresses of all VPN servers and VPN service providers are not blocked 😉
In case b) you want to get into the geography and activate a VPN server in the region in which you want to view content.
(3) To make your Internet usage more anonymous
If I don’t want my Internet provider (e.g. Deutsche Telekom) to keep track of which websites I visit, I can prevent this with an activated VPN service.
By the way, VPNs were originally “invented” for the business world to be able to access a private company network while on the move. Companies usually provide a VPN tunnel to employees who are working from home or on business trips. They can use it to establish an encrypted connection to their company headquarters and access applications and data there.
Trusted VPN Providers
https://mullvad.net/en/ is a fast and smart VPN service from Sweden with a serious focus on transparency and security. They have been in business since 2009 and offer clients for all platforms. Open Source – The source code of the client is deposited at GitHub. Last audit by Cure53 on December 2020.
Addendum 2022: Mullvad offers not only a VPN service, but also protection against ads, trackers and maleware, as well as an encrypted DNS connection.
https://protonvpn.com/ is a strong new player in the VPN space, operating since 2016. ProtonVPN is based in Switzerland and also offers clients for all platforms. The source code of the client is deposited at GitHub. Last audit by SEC Consult in January 2020.
Are there others? Yes, “top dogs” that I have used in the past and tested sufficiently are NordVPN and ExpressVPN. They’re fast, have many servers worldwide, but don’t meet all the requirements of a trusted provider.
Talking to your conscience again…
VPN services do not offer anonymity by disguising your IP address, because the IP address is just a small part of our online fingerprint.
The often advertised encryption of your data only extends to the VPN server. The path from the VPN server to your target server is just as secure or insecure as your chosen connection.
The majority of Internet connections when surfing the web are already encrypted (via HTTP, the small lock symbol in the browser).
You cannot check the promise of all VPN providers of a so-called “no-log” policy.
Sources, tips and links for further reading
PrivacyGuides, VPN Services, 01.11.2022
Sven Slotweg, “Don’t use VPN Services“, 05.05.2021
Dennis Schubert, VPN – a Very Precarious Narrative, 05.05.2021
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