Everyone is entitled to privacy, but not everyone knows how to protect and maintain it. It's not always that we turn a blind eye to our bests interests, it's just that many of us don't know the extent to which our private information is desired and subsequently compromised.
For example, most of us would prefer that our web browsing sessions were kept private. It's not that we're doing anything wrong, per se, but it's just nice to know that we can ask questions of Google without judgment.
So, what we might do is pop open an incognito browser window to perform our searches and go on our merry way. The problem is, this wouldn't provide very much protection at all.
Private browsing (or incognito mode), is a function of your web browser that allows you to browse the internet without the pages you visit appearing in your history. Websites are also unable to leave traces on your computer, such as cookies.
Small files that websites place on your computer to keep track of your behavior, history, or application progress. Mostly innocuous things like "are you logged in?", "what other products have you looked at on our site?", etc, but can be used as an attack vector, or for nefarious means.
Private browsing primarily helps shore up your local security -- that is, to keep you safe from people in your household (or with physical access to your device) looking at your browser history to figure out what websites you visit and when. It doesn't do anything for threats who don't need your keyboard to spy on you.
So, who are these external threats, and what do they want?
Advertisers, your Internet Service Provider, your employer, your government -- anyone who has the means to track you, probably does. Data is incredibly valuable to these entities for a variety of reasons.
Using a VPN can help mitigate a lot of these concerns. Let's take a look at five common reasons why people use VPNs.
Hint: It helps if you know how a VPN works before diving into this next section.
Internet Service Providers are responsible for acting as an intermediary during your connection to the internet. Every request your device makes must first go through your ISP, and in return, get passed back to them before they hand it to you.
While acting as an intermediary party, your ISP can see what domain names you are requested, and in some cases, what information you're accessing. Even if you use a secure HTTPS connection, your ISP can still see which websites or services you're connecting to.
In some cases, the domain name can be extremely sensitive -- consider certain health topics (cancer treatment, local planned parenthood websites, medical marijuana), etc.
When using a VPN, you're effectively transferring this role to the VPN provider. Your information is encrypted, and you connect through a tunnel to the VPN provider instead of your ISP. One thing to be aware of though is that poor VPN providers are no better than the worst ISPs. Improperly configured VPN clients or protocols are also a significant concern.
Sometimes companies will provide different services, different pricing, or different content to people in specific locations. This is widespread in the online travel industry. Many hotels or airlines use this tactic to charge different rates to people who are in different locations or have different browsing habits on their websites.
VPNs allow you to be seen as if you are browsing from a different city, state, or country altogether and renders these tactics useless on your behalf.
The big elephant in the room here is online censorship.
Your personal data is highly valuable. The more advertisers know about you, the better they can target their ads to sell you products.
Advertisers can directly track your movements online based on your IP address (your digital home address), your browser fingerprint, or your behavior across websites that they have access to (Facebook collects tremendous amounts of information for advertisers to use). They fold in all of the data generated by your browsing activity to create a composite profile. Later, this profile is targeted with advertisements and kept up to date as your preferences, purchases, and new browsing data is added to the mix.
By hiding your origin IP address, you've removed the ability for these types of trackers to build a composite profile.
If anonymity and freedom of browsing are important to you, a VPN will be a very powerful asset.
That said -- VPNs are a great tool to use in your privacy arsenal, but they're not perfect. For the most part, they're highly effective at obfuscating the data you're generating and making it very difficult to tie back to you. This is only one part of the privacy equation though.
If you use a VPN to go onto Twitter and publish dozens of tweets with personal information, it's going to invalidate any gains in personal privacy that you've accrued.
At SmartPrivacy, we advocate a more holistic approach to personal privacy. Read more about our position in our Manifesto.