In this era of media disruption, nothing has infiltrated the status quo with more alarming effect than the rise of streaming. Streaming is a landing point after the millennium jumpstarted with the advent of illegal file sharing. Services like Napster and Limewire allowed for thousands upon thousands of downloads per minute, as long as your bandwidth could keep up. Torrenting programs like Oink and The Pirate Bay allowed for higher quality and lower risk downloads. All of this has led us to our current situation, in which streaming giants have heeded the lessons of the providers that came before them, and used them to both create original content and acquire others’.
And yet, many of these programs are now under the crossfire of intellectual property law, no longer able to hide in plain sight or indulge in the wild west of the early internet era. As a result, many services have urged users to take their privacy seriously in an effort to stay out of trouble. And as big data becomes more powerful, and privacy something of a relic, those warnings feel more important than ever. One of the tools at our disposal are Virtual Private Networks (VPN). While their function was once to protect savvy internet users who want to maintain their privacy for potentially insidious means, VPN has become a more valuable tool as we inch our way into a brave new online world.
So what is VPN?
A VPN is a network that provides a secure connection between your computer and a server. Your internet data—most visited sites, your hours of traffic, your browsing information—all goes through a remote server that shields your internet usage. Nobody, from hackers to big brands to the government itself, can track your activity. Many browsers, like Safari, Chrome or Firefox, offer private browsing options, but those features simply keep your browser history secret on your computer, while leaving the trail of digital breadcrumbs out in the open. Your IP address—the specific numerical label assigned to every connected to an open internet network—is like your digital fingerprint, and VPN might be the only way to be sure you’re scrubbing it clean.
Now, VPNs are not totally private. The provider of your private network can still access your browsing data, making it a matter of deciding who to trust you information with rather than deciding whether to trust anyone at all. Much research has been done on which VPN providers can be trusted. Needless to say, free VPN providers aren’t exactly at the top of the list, as they can turn around and simply sell you data to advertisers in order to survive and continue to provide a cost-free service. That, and the service, can oftentimes be brutally slow.
But still, there are plenty to go through, many of which have been labored over and ranked. Over at the Mozilla blog, writer Dustin Driver broke down five key questions to ask when deciding between VPN providers:
- What kind of data, if any, does the VPN provider collect about your browsing?
- How long does it keep this data?
- Are there any restrictions?
- Where are the VPN servers?
- How do you pay for the VPN service?
With a fury of internet privacy rules having been rolled back recently, the popularity of VPN services have skyrocketed. Browser extensions are available, specifically designed for users whose date tends to lean exclusively to web browsing. Nevertheless, regardless of your usage or feelings about privacy, VPNs are becoming increasingly popular in a world that is slowly becoming more and more connected. Cutting the cord isn’t an option, but double padding it might be.
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