Virtual Private Networks, also known as VPNs, have had something of an image change in the last few years. Historically, the term VPN has come with negative connotations – linked to users on the Dark Web hiding their identities from law enforcement.
With that in mind, it’s interesting to see the cultural shift around VPN use, and the widespread adoption of this kind of tool by everyone from digital nomads to retirees. The focus is no longer on anonymity for nefarious purposes, but on the heavy encryption of personal user data and the boost, a VPN can give to anyone’s cyber defences.
In the USA, 65% of people recently surveyed stated that they use a VPN on their personal or work device, or on both. The UK is a little further behind, with 44% of respondents stating the same – but this is still a drastic uptake, and many VPN providers are reporting almost a 200% increase in sign-ups in the last two years.
What is driving the change?
Virtual Private Networks have two main functions – anonymity, and privacy. News around the UK’s Snooper’s Charter and the USA’s recent scrapping of internet privacy laws has made the general public painfully aware of the many ways in which their online activities are being logged, watched and sold. As a result, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people taking measures to avoid snooping.
Virtual Private Networks are designed to hide the IP address of their user, meaning that online activities can’t be traced back to their device, and are instead logged as having been made through a VPN server in a different location.
They also add a layer of end-to-end encryption to a user’s connection, meaning that if a cybercriminal did try to spy on things like bank account details and payments being transferred, they wouldn’t be able to. Instead, all they’d see on the connection are seemingly nonsensical encryption keys.
Keeping things private
When it comes to privacy rather than security, it’s the IP address switching that has piqued a lot of people’s interest. If websites and internet service providers know your IP and what you’re doing through a particular device, they can view your browsing history and in many instances, sell information about your habits and interests to advertising agencies who, in turn, want to sell you their products.
Internet users are getting so fed up with being bombarded by targeted ads that they are using ad blockers in large numbers, but these can be inconsistent and cause browser lags and crashes. Hiding your browsing activity is a simple way to avoid pushy advertising.
Another reason for the increase in VPN use is an increased awareness of the dangers of cybercrime. As people’s lives move more and more online, criminal activity is following – there were 978 million cybercrime victims around the world in 2017, resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars being stolen from ordinary people through hacking, ransomware, online fraud and similar tactics.
Whether it’s payment card details in an online shop, internet banking transactions, or simply sending personal addresses and information via email, there are all kinds of processes we don’t think twice about acting out online that can put data at risk.
While using antivirus on your devices is a good way to keep out things like malware and ransomware, it doesn’t protect your personal data from third-party onlookers while you’re browsing the web. To minimize the risk that you’ll be the next victim of cybercrime, privacy tools like a VPN are big steps in the right direction.
Who really uses VPNs?
Though there’s no doubt that schoolchildren around the world are still using VPNs to access Facebook and Instagram when they should be doing work, a host of common user types from other walks of life have proven to be big users of this kind of technology.
Digital nomads are a key group, working on the move and looking for easy ways to turn unsecured airport and coffee shop Wi-Fi networks into something secure enough to work on. Everyday home workers, and businesspeople who catch up on client work from trains and coaches, also require the added encryption a VPN can offer.
Elsewhere in the on-the-move community, VPNs are used to secure discounts on flights and hotel bookings, and to help holidaymakers stream their favorite shows while they’re abroad. People who retire abroad have been adopting them for similar reasons, but realistically, the majority of VPN adopters are just people who want to know their personal details aren’t going to be stolen from under their nose.
VPN use in authoritarian countries tends to be somewhat higher, with users trying to sidestep national restrictions on access to certain websites, and things like Uganda’s social media tax.
Online security concerns
According to the US government, America’s greatest cybercrime concerns are identity theft, credit card and banking fraud, data collection and loss of control over personal data. In the UK, more than half of all reported crime each year now involves cybersecurity in some way.
If a hacker does gain access to your connection, it isn’t just outright immediate theft that can occur. They can also edit the information you’re sending and receiving, with criminals identified as having changed notes on files and contracts to make them redundant or to reverse them, as well as more ‘traditional’ actions like changing a payment account number to their own.
It’s understandable that people are starting to take more notice of cybersecurity, thinking about all of the tools they can have in their repertoire without needing expert knowledge and a huge pile of cash. Virtual Private Networks are no longer the domain of the hacker – they have slowly but surely stepped into place as the obvious companion to antivirus, as much a part of everyday cybersecurity as setting a complex password.