I think that VPNs are – or soon will be – normal enough not to attract undue attention… The fact that they may also shield you from some state snooping is just a bonus.
Now that the snooper’s charter has been passed, how can I protect myself? Should I use a VPN? Charles
The UK has just passed the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, at the third attempt, and it will become law by the end of the year. The bill was instigated by the then home secretary, Theresa May, in 2012. It is better known as the snooper’s charter.
Jim Killock, the director of Open Rights Group, described it as the “most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy”. It more or less removes your right to online privacy.
The law forces internet service providers to keep a record of all the websites – not the actual pages – you visit for up to a year. It also obliges companies to decrypt data on demand and gives government security services the power to hack your computers, tablets, mobile phones and other devices.
To some extent, the new law merely legalises the current “custom and practice” as revealed by Edward Snowden. The most obvious difference is that it makes your web history readily available to almost 50 assorted police forces and government departments. These include the British Transport Police, the Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency, the Gambling Commission, and the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust.
Web tracking and proxies
When you sign up with an ISP, the traffic from your PCs and other devices goes to your ISP’s servers, which feed most of it – except various blocked websites – on to the internet. You can track this process yourself using TraceRoute.
Your ISP therefore knows where you are going online. You can avoid this by using one or more anonymous “proxy servers” between your PC and your eventual destination. Your ISP will then know you visited the proxy server, but, if the anonymising is done properly, it won’t know where you went from there.
Most people aren’t interested in proxy servers, but often end up using them. For example, British people travelling or living aboard use UK-based proxy servers to watch TV programmes on BBC iPlayer, while people outside the US use American proxies to access Netflix and other services.
Enter the VPN
There are two big problems with using free proxies. First, you may not know who’s running them. They could be helpful hackers or criminals, or even CIA honeypots. Second, they may be unreliable and slow. It’s better to use a virtual private network or VPN.
Multinational corporations have long used VPNs as a way of extending their private networks across the public internet. If they encrypt all the traffic between computers in their British, American and other offices, they can send their traffic securely over the internet without paying for expensive leased lines. VPN service providers offer the same facilities to ordinary users for a small monthly fee.
The traffic from your PC is automatically encrypted and sent to the VPN supplier’s server, so your ISP can’t see the final destination. The ISP’s records should only contain the VPN company’s server addresses.
Not many people use VPNs. However, I recommend them to people who travel a lot or work from public Wi-Fi hotspots, because they protect your traffic from snoopers who steal passwords – or worse. I also recommend them to people who are potential targets for other reasons. They might be diplomats, film stars, bankers or anyone with commercially sensitive data
Choosing a VPN
Dozens of companies sell VPN services, and you can find plenty of reviews to help you choose. The things to look for include the number of servers and where they are located, their privacy policies, the applications they support (Tor, BitTorrent etc), speed and price. Some have applications for different devices. For example, NordVPN has them for Windows, MacOS, iPhone, iPad and Android.
If your motivation includes the snooper’s charter, choose a VPN that is not UK-based, and that does not keep any logs. If they don’t keep any logs, they can’t hand them over to government raiders. TorrentFreak keeps an updated list of “which VPN services take your anonymity seriously”: The Best Anonymous VPN Services of 2016.
For increased privacy, some VPN providers accept payments by dozens of different methods including Bitcoin and anonymous gift cards.
However, note that a VPN can’t guarantee access to any particular website. For example, Netflix has taken to blocking most VPN services (where hundreds of users are coming from one IP address), though some are making technical efforts to maintain access. You may also have problems with Google’s geolocation, PayPal’s fraud detection software, and so on.
Also, remember that a VPN doesn’t protect you from phishing emails, keyloggers, and websites that try to install “drive by” malware.
A VPN stops your ISP from logging your web visits, but they may still be logged. For starters, your own web browser is keeping a history. You’re also being tracked by dozens of advertising services, including Google’s. You can block trackers with a browser extension such as Ghostery or the EFF’s Privacy Badger, but note that Privacy Badger only blocks trackers from third-party sites.
GRC has a “forensics” page, which checks whether you are being tracked by cookies.
For increased privacy, you could access the internet from a “virtual computer” loaded in your operating system, and then throw it away after use. VirtualBox is a good free example. VMware Workstation Player is also free for non-commercial use.
This may be the only way to avoid being tracked by “browser fingerprinting”. This is when the tracking company (or government agency) gives your PC a unique identifier based on variables such as screen resolution, browser version, extensions, fonts, timezone and so on. If you use a virtual PC, every session starts with a more-or-less generic fingerprint. It may not be perfect, but it’s less identifiable than the alternative.
Mail, messaging and smartphones
The snooper’s charter obviously covers too many services and devices for a single answer. However, you could consider switching to a secure email service such as ProtonMail, and a secure messaging service such as Signal. ChatSecure, WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage also encrypt messages.
You can’t make smartphone use private because you’re always being tracked by the cellular network. However, you can turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when you’re not using them – they can also be used to track you – and use a VPN for web access. Remember also that many smartphone apps request permissions that enable them to track you.
As an ordinary citizen with a life, you can’t hide from the security services, any more than you can defend your house against a tank regiment. If they want to hack your devices, they will. If you’re an investigative journalist, human rights campaigner, one of Snowden’s collaborators etc, you need a higher level of security.
But if they are not out to get you, why act as though they should be? It’s probably better to be as inconspicuous as possible, while limiting the amount of data that might turn up in some bored agency’s random fishing expeditions.
I think that VPNs are – or soon will be – normal enough not to attract undue attention. There are already plenty of reasons for using a VPN, to protect yourself in a world of hostile Wi-Fi hotspots (hence HotSpot Shield, Hide My Ass etc) and other online threats. That’s why many large businesses use VPNs. The fact that they may also shield you from some state snooping is just a bonus.
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