Consumer privacy in the age of digital-everything and big data has always been a hot topic. Lately, though, it’s on fire thanks to recent legislation passed by Congress. As a result, privacy concerns have spiked. To those worried about privacy, some in the industry are suggesting a move to virtual private networks (VPNs) might be the answer. It’s not. Let’s explore why.
If you’ve avoided the news over the last ten days, you missed something big: On Tuesday, March 28, Congress voted down party lines on the issue of broadband protections—50-48—and sent legislation to the president that repeals what The Washington Post called “the FCC’s landmark Internet privacy protections” granted in an Obama-era bill. President Trump is expected to sign it shortly.
There are a lot of politics at play here, as can be expected—but this isn’t the place for that discussion. (Remember the importance of separating work and political opinions? I wrote all about it here: Protesting and Your Job: What You Need to Know.) This is a place to discuss the facts, though. Here they are:
- The legislation frees up restrictions on what Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast can do with consumer information, including data like app usage history, browsing history, and location data.
- If the bill goes into effect, these providers will be able to not only monitor customer behavior more closely to sell ads that take targeting to a whole new level, but they can also sell consumer data—both personal and financial—to other companies. Those third-party companies would be permitted to use consumers’ data without consent.
- The legislation also holds that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can’t issue any more regulations like the ones that stand to be overturned. Ever.
Supporters of the repeal say the old privacy regulations were simply too strict and a product of executive overreach; opponents of the bill are worried it gives ISPs too much access to and permissions around consumer data.
Some of those who have expressed worry about the privacy loss implications of this bill have been pointed to VPNs as solutions. In fact, Techdirt recently reported that NordVPN, a VPN provider, has seen a whopping 86 percent increase in inquiries from potential new subscribers since the legislation passed—a mere matter of days ago.
What is a VPN, though, and is it really the answer? Let’s explore.
What is a VPN?
An ISP gives you an internet connection. A VPN is different: it’s an additional service from a VPN provider that allows you to connect to the Internet in all the traditional ways—on a phone, tablet, computer, etc.—via a server that encrypts your data. That’s the important part.
There are several pluses to VPNs. Many remote workers, for example, use VPNs to connect to company servers because they’re more secure and can provide protection against hackers if they’re using a Wi-Fi hotspot while out in public. There are disadvantages, too. At times, for example, a VPN can cause a slower Internet connection, and it also costs money. (Sidenote: Signing up for a free VPN is never a good idea.)
Why VPNs Might Not Be the Answer
A VPN can keep broadband providers from seeing sites you visit, but the protection stops there. Once you’re logged in to a digital service—say, your Amazon or Netflix account, for example—you can be tracked by providers and targeted by advertisements. Here are a few other reasons VPNs might not be the answer to your privacy woes:
- While VPNs do give privacy protections, they don’t guarantee anonymity.
- VPNs have access to all your online patterns—you know, those hidden from your ISP. While most VPN providers report they don’t track that sort of data—which makes sense, because their business models are built on security and privacy—it’s still a possibility they do (or can in the future).
- For VPNs that don’t undergo third party audits—which account for many VPN providers, surprisingly—it’s unclear if they actually deliver the privacy they promise.
- If you do opt to use a VPN, some ISPs can charge you even more for losing access to your data.
The Bottom Line
A VPN isn’t a wrong answer if you’re worried about privacy in the wake of this impending legislation. Industry expert Kevin Riggle, in fact, has a clear breakdown of what to look for in VPNs and even recommends some of his favorites in his post, Quick and Dirty VPN Advice.
The bottom line, though? Just because VPNs aren’t going to hurt you in your quest for more privacy doesn’t mean they’re going to be uber-helpful, either. Proceed with caution.
What are your thoughts when it comes to online privacy in this stage of our digital evolution? Will the legislation in question, if passed, hurt consumers? Tell me in the comments.
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Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”