PC Magazine Software Analyst Max Eddy has also written for publications such as International Digital Times, International Science Times, and The Mary Sue.
In the past few years, PCMag has seen VPN services morph from fringe security utilities to red-hot, must-have cyber accessories. The popularity (and necessity) of the once-lowly VPN is certainly due to the ever-growing legal and technological challenges to individual privacy. Virtual private networks are a tool whose time has clearly come.
That’s why it’s so surprising that a poll conducted by PCMag found that despite understanding the threats to their privacy, the vast majority of respondents don’t use VPNs and never have. Most people, I had assumed, would have crossed paths with a VPN at some point. But of the 1,000 people polled by PCMag between February 7 and 9, 71 percent have never used a VPN.
That struck me for two reasons. First, the search volume we receive on PCMag.com for VPN-related articles is enormous. Second, many companies require the use of a corporate VPN when employees are working remotely. That might explain why 15 percent had used a VPN in the past but don’t currently log on.
What’s fascinating about the recent interest in VPNs is that it hasn’t been tied to a single issue but rather to an avalanche of privacy and security concerns. An awful lot has happened in the last few years, the answer to which has often been, “use a VPN.”
One of the first news items that seemed to spur VPN adoption was the decision by Congress to allow internet service providers (ISPs) to sell anonymized user data. That’s reflected in our survey data, where 25 percent of respondents (correctly) identified ISPs as the biggest threat to their individual privacy.
24 percent of respondents also listed Facebook as a threat to their privacy. This was despite the fact that our survey was in the field back in February—before the Cambridge Analytica scandal raised privacy concerns about the social network to a new level. I imagine that if we ran the same survey now, even more consumers would be concerned about Facebook, and rightly so.
Admittedly, a VPN won’t do much when it comes to the kind of surveillance carried out by Facebook. But it’s still spooky to learn that the company is tracking even people who don’t have Facebook accounts.
These issues haven’t been limited to the US. Russia and China have introduced new rules that make it much harder for VPNs to operate within those countries. Furthermore, Russia recently banned popular encrypted messaging app Telegram, reportedly driving more users to adopt VPNs.
Another threat reflected in the survey is that of using public Wi-Fi networks. There’s no way to know that a network labeled “Starbucks_Wifi” is legit and not a network created for the express purpose of nabbing people’s personal information. Fortunately, 43 percent of respondents said the main reason they would use a VPN was to access public Wi-Fi.
And then there’s net neutrality. Many hoped that the ongoing fight to ensure that ISPs must treat all web traffic equally in terms of speed and accessibility would end with updated FCC rules during the Obama administration. Unfortunately, the new FCC chairman decided (incorrectly) that these rules were unnecessary and successfully dismantled them.
This is where our numbers seem a bit out of step with reality, as we found that 55 percent of respondents who agreed with the concept of net neutrality had never used a VPN. And although 46 percent said they supported net neutrality, 32 percent didn’t know what it was. That’s disappointing all on its own.
Also disheartening were the responses about voluntarily surrendering personal information. A dismal 62 percent of respondents said they’d willingly hand over personal information for free Wi-Fi. Another 23 percent said they would hand over personal info for exclusive content on video streaming platforms, and 13 percent said they’d do it for exclusive content in video games.
A staggering 7 percent said they would surrender personal info for free “adult” content. I find this particularly mind-blowing, as there is not (last I checked) a dearth of free porn on the internet.
That said, a key caveat of this particular set of questions was the phrase “willingly.” Too often, people aren’t aware of the information they’re giving up in exchange for a free mobile app or what companies can see when they share a post on Facebook. If we’re going to use our personal information as currency, it’s better that we make those transactions willingly.
In all my writing about VPNs, I’ve tried to stress their limitations. They won’t make you truly anonymous online—you need Tor for that. And there’s a risk anytime you use a for-profit company for security. (You can roll your own VPN with Outline, but I digress.)
Many of you have concerns about using VPNs in general, such as what kind of impact a VPN will have on internet speeds (37 percent), whether it will work with a particular online service (15 percent), and whether it can be used to access Netflix (28 percent). Those are legitimate concerns that have been only partially solved by VPN companies.
But the last few years have shown that an economy based around gathering user data has real consequences. Between data breaches, foreign election influence, and the sheer volume of data being gathered by seemingly innocuous services, it’s never been more urgent to take control of our privacy online. A VPN won’t solve all those issues, but it’s a start.