VPNs vs. Online Tracking

Privacy

VPNs such as Freedome are a great way for people to secure their personal data while surfing online. They’re important security tools to prevent data leakages and unwanted snooping (which are surprisingly easy to do over public Wi-Fi connections). But VPNs are also important in that they can send a collective message to companies that people will not give up control over their personal data so easily. More people using VPNs can make mass surveillance more difficult, and potentially less profitable for companies.

Studies are now suggesting that VPN users are effectively thwarting some of the surveillance technologies used by digital marketers. While some might make claims that such trends prevent companies from providing personalized, high-quality digital services, it can also be read as a confirmation that VPNs are making significant strides in helping protect people from online tracking.

According to the above link, over 400 million people around the world use technologies such as VPNs to help them stay anonymous online. VPNs are particularly prevalent in many developing markets: over 30% of Internet users in Brazil, Mexico, China, India and Turkey report using VPNs. Usage is even higher in Indonesia, where over 40% of users connect to the Internet with a VPN.

Using VPNs clouds data obtained through passive data collection techniques by cloaking the true IP addresses of users, meaning online trackers are unable to provide accurate data on where these users are located. Some people suggest this feeds into a cycle of “digital imperialism”, where investment in digital services is allocated primarily to the “virtual locations” offered by VPNs – usually in the US or other “mature Internet nations” – as opposed to developing nations that have higher rates of VPN usage.

However, a more critical reading of these trends seems to affirm that VPNs are an effective way to fight back against unwanted Internet tracking. By giving people the freedom to use different “virtual locations” to access web content, VPN users are effectively able to hide themselves from online trackers. Contextualizing this trend within contemporary debates around digital freedom makes this seem like an affirmation that VPNs are an effective way to sabotage the efforts of companies that use passive data tracking techniques to track, map, and exploit personal data.

Such an act is significant in relation to the huge concerns people have with what’s happening with their personal data. A recent survey done by the Pew Research Center Internet Project found that 91% of Americans feel that people have lost control over how data is collected and used by companies. TRUSTe’s 2015 Consumer Privacy Confidence Index found that 92% of Americans and Britons worry (at least sometimes) about their online privacy, with both nationalities citing the behavior of companies as the most common reason for their concerns.

Freedome actively blocks tracking attempts while people surf, and provides users with different virtual locations to choose from. The apparent ineffectiveness of passive data tracking techniques when faced with this type of protection seems to confirm that such a resource can effectively send a message to companies that their tracking attempts become unprofitable when people decide to take control of their digital freedom.

The significant numbers of VPN users speak to the technologies’ accessibility and usefulness, so it’s unclear why people would choose not to use a VPN when online privacy concerns are so prominent. Freedome is available for a free trial on iOS, Android, Windows PC, OS X, and Amazon Fire devices, so it’s worth trying now if you’ve read this and are looking for a way to take back control over your right to online privacy.

[Image by Ludovic Bertron | Flickr]

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