virtual private network
Technology

How your Privacy is at Risk on the Web: using a virtual private network (VPN) can help

 

Note: This article has affiliate links.

 

Are you concerned about your online activities being disclosed to third parties? If yes, keep reading, and a quick advice is to use a virtual private network (VPN) through a service provider such as NordVPN. When a record of your online activities is created, it can be used without your consent. Your record can be used to figure out how much money can be made from you by analyzing any of your online moves. The more you use the internet, the better of a profile of you can be created, and such profile can be used to predict your future moves.

As you will see below, browsers and internet service providers disclose in their privacy policies that they do collect information about your online activities and that they do share some of your records to third parties. If you need to know how these third parties use your information, you probably need to check if they also have privacy policies, assuming you can identify those third parties.

Your browser history can also be stolen and can be used without your consent. In many cases, you may not even know your private information has been disclosed. You will soon know about two such incidents.

You can prevent your online activities from being disclosed without your consent. One way to keep your online data secure is to avoid using the internet altogether. Another way is to use a virtual private network from a service provider such as NordVPN. With this service, you will be able to hide your real IP address and your online visits will be encrypted by servers. Below, you will find more information about some of the features of one such service provider, namely NordVPN.

virtual private network

What happens when you visit the web

When you ask for a website, your request goes to your internet service provider that, in turn, fetches the website and sends it to your computer [more]. More specifically, you use a browser (such as Edge, Mozilla, and Chrome) that sends the request and receives and translates the result into data you can understand, such as text, images, and sound [more]. Your browser and your internet service provider (ISP) have a history of all the websites you visit.

Someone can see all the websites you have visited just by looking at your web history from your browser. The same is true if anyone has access to the web history stored by your internet service provider.

When your online activities are collected and shared

data collection and sharing

Here are some examples of your online activity being shared with third parties:

T-Mobile

In May 2021, T-Mobile announced it would share its customers’ online activity with third parties for advertising purposes. Its customers’ consent is the default, but it gives its customers these options if they refuse to participate or want to have some control over how their information is used:

    • Customers can choose which method T-Mobile can use to communicate marketing-related information to them: the methods are emailing, direct messaging, text messaging, and phone calling.
    • Customers can opt out of advertising and tracking.
    • Customers can request to see what information T-Mobile has about them and to delete such information.
    • Customers can explicitly ask T-Mobile to not sell their information to third parties.

Some of the data T-Mobile collects about its customers are their IP addresses, visited websites, text messages, biometrics, audios, and locations.

Some of the third parties with which T-Mobile shares its customers’ data are banks, credit bureaus, and its service providers. You can find more about how T-Mobile shares its customers’ data to third parties by visiting its privacy policy webpage.

Xfinity

The February 2021 version of Xfinity’s privacy policy explains how the company collects its customers’ data and how it shares them with third parties. Xfinity is a subsidiary of Comcast, and it offers internet access and other digital services.

Xfinity collects its customers’ personal information such as their names and addresses and collects information when they use the services offered by the company such as IP addresses, audio recordings, and websites visited.

According to the company’s privacy policy, Xfinity shares its customers’ personal information (including their internet usage) when its customers give the company their explicit consent, for legal purposes, or to defend the company.

Xfinity’s customers can control how their information is used through the company’s Privacy Preferences Center. You can find more details about Xfinity’s privacy policy by visiting its webpage.

Dataspii

In 2019, a leak called Dataspii affected millions of browsers. The leak occurred as a result of downloading extensions for Chrome and Firefox browsers. Web histories recorded by these browsers were leaked and sold to a company that, in turn, sold access to individuals. Some of the data leaked were:

  • home and business surveillance videos
  • patients’ medical records, including their names
  • tax returns
  • vehicle identification numbers
  • online photos
  • credit card information
  • Zoom meetings

The data leaked were from individuals, companies,  and governmental agencies, and as many as 4 million browsers were affected. You can find more about this leak by going here and here.

The Avast Report

In November 2020, cybersecurity specialists discovered that at least 28 extensions for Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge browsers were infected with malware. About 3 millions devices were affected. The malware can redirect these browser users to websites they have not requested before directing them to their requested websites. The malware can also collect users’ information, such as the websites visited, their IP addresses, email addresses, and dates of birth.

These extensions were used for Instagram, video downloading, YouTube, The New York Times, and so on. Some of these extensions are Direct Message for Instagram, Universal Video Downloader, Spotify Music Downloader, and The New York Times News. You can find more information about this incident here or here.

UC Browser

UC Browser is a web browser that can be used to access the web. Here are some of the features of this browser:

    • it optimizes cellular traffic and compresses data;
    • it helps users block ads on pages;
    • it allows its users to play videos in the background;
    • it allows its users to visit the web without leaving any trace by using its Incognito Mode.

However, it has been reported that UC Browser users’ web histories and IP addresses have been recorded even if they were in Incognito Mode; you can find more about this development by reading this story.

Furthermore, UC Browser mentions in its July 2020 privacy policy that it collects personal information and IP addresses and tracks its users’ web activities. Also, UC Browser details how it uses its users’ information; some of the ways are to provide customer and technical support, to monitor performance and technical problems, and to prevent fraud. UC Browser also informs its users that their information is shared with third-party advertisers, including their device IP addresses, device GPS locations, and time zones. You can find more details by visiting the privacy policy here.

Using a virtual private network (VPN)

nordvpn

If you need to protect your privacy online, you can use a virtual private network (VPN) to access the internet. Many companies such as NordVPN offer virtual private network services. Before we tell you about one such company, we will tell you what a VPN is and how it works.

When you send a request through a virtual private network, it goes through a server, where your request is encrypted; then your request is sent through a tunnel that is inaccessible to unauthorized agents. When your request reached its destination, the recipient cannot tell the request comes from your computer because your IP address has been changed during the encryption process.

Let’s get into some details. You can access a virtual private network through a VPN service, for which you need to create credentials, such as a username and password. When you log in to that VPN service, a VPN server will check your account for access. The VPN server is your gateway to the virtual private network. Then the server will use a VPN protocol to encrypt your outbound requests and your inbound results. 

virtual private network
Credit: MVPS.net

 

A VPN protocol is a set of rules that dictate how your data is encrypted and decrypted by the servers and how your data is sent through the tunnel. There are several VPN protocols, including:

  • OpenVPN
  • PPTP
  • SSTP
  • Wireguard
  • Proprietary protocols

Your VPN service provider may use more than one protocol and may give you the option to choose a protocol that works best for you. Also, some of your VPN service providers may have their proprietary protocols; for example, NordVPN has NordLynx.

You can access a virtual private network with your personal computer (PC) or mobile phone. You still need an internet service provider to reach the VPN service provider. Then, once you are logged in, your internet service provider cannot track you.

As we explained before, your web history is recorded by your browser and your internet service provider. Once you access the internet, you are assigned an IP address that can be used to know your location and identity; a website you visit can also have a record of your IP address. Thus, when you directly access the internet, all of your activities can be traced back to you. That is why, for example, advertisers can infer your preferences and then show you ads that they think you may be interested in. For instance, when you look up that iPhone, they know about that, and ads about iPhones and related products may follow you wherever you go on the web for some time.

A VPN server keeps you anonymous on the web by assigning a different IP address to your device and by encrypting your requests. Because you have a different IP address, your web visits cannot be tied to you, and because your request is encrypted, its content may not be deciphered if it is intercepted, making your online visits secure. 

A VPN Service Provider: NordVPN

virtual private network - NordVPN

NordVPN has more than 5,000 servers in more than 60 countries. Wherever you are located, it is highly probable that you have a NordVPN server near you. With its unlimited bandwidth and data, you can use its service as much as you want. Also, you can simultaneously connect 6 devices to one account.

With its 24/7 customer support, you are guaranteed to find someone to help you when in need.

Here are some of the features offered by NordVPN, making it one of the best VPN service providers:

  • Secure internet: NordVPN gives you access to a virtual private network, so your internet surfing is anonymous and encrypted.
  • No-logs policy: although your web history is not privy to your internet service provider when you use a VPN, your VPN service provider can still record your history. NordVPN does not log your internet visits.
  • Split tunneling: you can choose to send some of your traffic through the VPN tunnel while directly accessing the internet.
  • Malware and ad blocking: you can block websites that are known to host malware, and you can block ads you find annoying. The ad block feature is available only for Windows, iOS, macOS, and Linux. Android mobile phones users cannot use the ad blocking feature because of Google’s policies.
  • Live sports streaming: you can watch a sports event live, even you are traveling around the world. If people at your household are sports fans but want to watch different sports events live at the same time, you can make this happen since 6 devices can use your account.
  • DNS leak test: the Domain Name System, or DNS, connects the alphanumeric names for websites with their IP addresses. To ensure complete anonymity of your online visits, NordVPN provides its own DNS and can check if your online requests reach the internet outside the protective tunnel.
  • Worldwide access: you can easily access websites and streaming services wherever you are, even if you are in places where this content would normally be inaccessible.
  • Double VPN: if you are very concerned about your online privacy, you can encrypt your web activities twice; instead of using one VPN server to encrypt your activities, you can use a second VPN server to encrypt your encrypted traffic.
  • Obfuscated servers: Internet service providers and some websites can tell if you are using a VPN. Some websites may have firewalls to block traffic from VPNs. You can use obfuscated servers to hide that you are using a VPN.
  • Kill Switch: your access to a virtual private network may be temporarily unavailable, thereby exposing your online activities. With the Kill Switch feature, you lose access to the web once you lose access to the virtual private network. You need to ensure this feature is turned on to make use of it.
  • Chrome and Firefox extensions: you can download NordVPN extensions for Chrome and Firefox if you use any of these browsers, and you will have most of the functionalities that the app offers.

Last Words

When you use the internet, you have no guarantee that your activities are anonymous and hidden. In fact, your browser and internet service provider have a record of all your online moves. As mentioned above, internet service providers and browsers disclose in their privacy policies what information from your devices they collect and how they use that information.

Furthermore, your online records can be hacked, disclosing information about you that was meant to be private, and you may be unable to erase or hide these records forever.

One reason internet service providers collect your online information is to share it with third parties that have an interest in such information. For example, advertisers may need to understand a market before they launch a product or offer a service, so they may need to gather as much information as possible about their targeted audience for analysis and inferences.

In the case of a leak, the motive may be more obscure. During a leak, information that is considered to be private, such as someone’s social security number and medical records, can be made available to third parties. As we mentioned earlier, one motive for a leak can be monetary gain; data made available in such case rarely are disclosed to anyone therefore may be valuable to third parties. In fact, in the Dataspii incident, the leaked data were put up for sale.

One step you can take to protect your privacy online is to use a virtual private network that assigns a new IP address to your device, which is not tied to your identity and geographic location, and that encrypts your online requests, making it harder for unauthorized third parties to know about your online activities.

An easy way to access a virtual private network is to open an account with  NordVPN, which offers some of the best VPN service. 

nordvpn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *