What does a VPN hide?Apr 15, 2021
Over the past year, people around the world have learned a lot about remote work and the reality of living life largely, or even entirely, online. From participating in distance learning for children, to conducting regular office and team meetings at home, to gathering with friends and families using video conferencing services, many people spent significantly more time online than they had ever done before.
In many ways, we are fortunate to be experiencing all this at a moment in time in which such robust virtual connection is possible. Over the past year technology has allowed us, in ways it could not have only a decade ago, to safely socialize and be in the here and now, despite physical distance. But while prioritizing physical safety is an obvious choice, it's essential to emphasize online safety as well.
Nowhere has this become more evident than through the genuine and tangible issues surrounding digital privacy that have cropped up over the past year. The risks we face when we use the Internet -- both obvious and subtle -- have emerged as a crucial topic of debate globally. There is growing consensus in many spheres around the need for practical solutions to protect ourselves when we use the Internet.
Some of today's heightened fears around privacy stem from recent regulatory actions in the United States. Specifically, in 2017 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) overturned Net Neutrality, which required the Internet to be treated like a public utility with all traffic handled equally. When this happened, a number of user protections that had long been taken for granted promptly ended. Critics of the move argued that, since the time of its birth, the Internet had morphed from a communications tool to a trade vehicle used by commerce and content with the change. They also cited concerns over everyday users' privacy since Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which already had access to large pools of data, were now granted the ability to collect information about their users.
Every time you log in to your computer, smartphone, or tablet and go online, certain information is visible to third-party entities including your ISP, the websites you visit, and numerous other interested and invested third parties. On the surface, the access granted to these entities could appear to be harmless. But the fact is that your information is exposed, and could be exploited for any number of reasons, from the commercial to the criminal.
When we use the Internet we leave behind digital footprints. These tracks include information about our searches, website visits, and the things we download such as documents, music files, and photographs. When we use the Internet unprotected, others can see where we've been and what we've done. Clearing a search history and cookies doesn't change this. But a good VPN can help enormously.
It's not surprising that interest in VPNs has surged in recent years. Using a VPN is one of the best ways to reduce the risks we face when using the Internet. These privacy tools work by routing user traffic through an encrypted virtual "tunnel" that disguises a user's IP address while they surf the web, making sensitive information indecipherable to prying eyes as well as those with bad intentions.
But what is it they really hide? Here, we explore precisely which aspects of our online lives are kept private when we use a VPN -- and how this is achieved.
The old saying goes that we shouldn't write down anything we don't want to see published on the front page of the news the next day -- and the same thing is true when it comes to search histories. One of the prime reasons most of us use the Internet is to conduct searches. With so many resources just a few clicks away, logging on and typing in queries becomes second nature. And with so much of life lived online, it is crucial to remember that everything you look for becomes part of your search history.
It will come as no surprise to many that Google often plays the role of intimate confidant. With searches covering health, love lives, family matters, interests and hobbies, shopping habits, and questions people are embarrassed to ask publicly, it's important to remember that both the "delete" and "delete permanently" functions are not always final.
Many people are savvy enough to clear their search history -- but don't realize that this does not actually cover their tracks beyond the specific computer they have used. Hitting delete or clearing the cache only removes it from one location on the computer and ports it over to another. In fact, the user's search history is permanent, vulnerable, traceable, and easy to locate. Moreover, deleting the search history in a browser does nothing to diminish the ability of ISPs and websites to identify and log online activity based on IP address. Without a VPN or other strong privacy tool, this information is out there whether or not we clear history and delete cookies.
Using A VPN during a search session provides a secure firewall that keeps the search private from your ISP. A VPN hides the user's search history and browsing info through solid encryption. When you engage with a VPN, your ISP can only register that you are connected to a VPN server, making every keystroke or inquiry private. However, if you are logged in to platforms such as Google or Facebook, those companies will be able to retain search history and metadata about your activity regardless of whether or not you are using a VPN, as your login credititals act as identitfying pieces of information which can be used to track your activity.
Every device that connects to the Internet has an IP address -- a unique numerical label used to identify the device connected to a computer network -- affiliated with it. These include obvious examples such as laptops, desktops, and smartphones, as well as other equipment like scanners, printers, and smart TVs.
While their intended use is to help websites recognize a specific computer in order to more quickly carry out certain functions, the information contained in an IP address is also sensitive and therefore susceptible to exploitation. Hackers looking up IP addresses can access information about your physical location, including your city, state, zip code, or country. IP addresses also face an extra layer of exposure in that they have been traced back to a user's home ISP, which can reveal names, home addresses, and even credit card information. Hackers looking to harass a victim can also use the IP address to disable certain parts of their browsing experience.
IP addresses aren't just vulnerable to criminals. Through these identifiers, many kinds of online players, including ISPs, websites, and advertisers, can see where we are and what we're doing, and seek to utilize that information for commercial purposes. IP addresses, for example, are how websites know to show ads for businesses and services in a specific geographic location.
When we go online using a VPN, we mask our actual IP address. The VPN does this by encrypting all data sent and received and routing it through a different server. Through this process, traffic originating from the device is seen as associated with the VPN's IP address rather than the user's. This firewall of protection helps safeguard personal information, including any details entered into a search field.
As alluded to above, a VPN's ability to obscure a user's IP address means their location in the world can also be concealed. This has a number of important implications and many different use cases. At the most basic, the obfuscation of a person's location can allow them to access content that is not available in their country or region, such as streaming services that offer popular movies and TV shows.
But there are use cases beyond simple entertainment. Some countries block certain apps and services, which can make life and work difficult. A VPN can allow these people to access the most useful and convenient tools in order to do their jobs and fulfil their obligations.
In the gravest of circumstances, VPNs can be a critical tool for people struggling to assert their fundamental rights against authorities or other powerful forces. Protesters and demonstrators in many countries around the world often rely on VPNs to organize and communicate beyond the gaze of the authorities. By hiding geolocation, VPNs allow these dissidents to access communication channels that make it possible for them to carry their movements forward.
A few examples of some of the ways people use Orchid around the world provide an illustration of the role geolocation can play through a person's IP address -- and the possibilities that open up when we use a strong privacy solution.
Privacy in unexpected places
Unprotected Internet browsing leaves behind a trail of unencrypted data, which means that anyone on a mission and in the know could access it and use it to their advantage. For instance, hackers could break into a computer and listen to audio files, or read messages. But beyond that -- and perhaps surprisingly to many-- devices such as a Ring camera or appliances such as coffee makers and refrigerators can be vulnerable to exploitation. VPN encryption protects all device data by making sure it is indecipherable to anyone who might intercept it or attempt to manipulate it.
This extends beyond the homes of individuals. For example, medical providers often operate through private client portals to comply with the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations related to the Protected Health Information rule. And while it is easy to assume a medical provider's computer system would be the obvious entry point for any bad actor, access to sensitive health information can also be "backdoored" through other devices -- of which hospitals contain many. Patient information could, for example, be put at risk through Internet of Things devices such as smart elevators, remote patient monitoring devices, or even a smart HVAC system.
VPNs can therefore help protect users -- from individuals to large medical facilities -- from being manipulated or exploited through the increasing number of smart IoT devices they use. By encrypting all data transmitted over the networks and both on-site and remotely, they can help protect against risk, whether it comes through an unprotected computer, a doorbell camera, or a medical device.
Why a strong Internet privacy tool is essential
It can be daunting to think about all the information we produce and share over the Internet -- knowingly and otherwise. Fortunately, there are solutions for those looking to safeguard their data and protect their privacy. A reputable VPN with a clear commitment not to log user data is a good place to start.
Orchid brings together the services of many different VPN providers in a unique decentralized marketplace. Users pay for bandwidth on a pay-as-you-go basis -- no monthly commitment or recurring fee. And Orchid lets users get started for as little as $1.
Orchid is powered by the OXT digital asset. Those wishing to offer bandwidth on the network stake OXT in order to advertise their services, with more opportunities awarded to those who stake more. The marketplace is designed to ensure bandwidth providers are properly compensated for their services, and therefore that there is always ample bandwidth on the network. And it's true: Orchid offers fast connections and high download speeds, and has continued to get faster since its launch in December 2019.
And there's no need to install a Web3 browser in order to use Orchid. While the network runs on OXT -- and people can now also purchase bandwidth using xDAI -- users can purchase a pre-filled Orchid account through an in-app purchase using nothing more than an ordinary credit card.
When we use the Internet, we leave behind a lot of data. This comes from our web searches and downloads -- but also from less obvious sources, such as our connected smart devices. Fortunately, using a privacy tool like Orchid can obscure many of the markers that allow third parties to know what we do when we go online -- and can help keep us safe and free when we use the Internet.
Download the Orchid app to start exploring the Internet freely.