Before You Start Using a VPN, Read This

Use of VPNs has exploded in the last few years, pushed by increasing awareness of privacy issues among citizens as well as governments and corporations doubling down on their censorship and surveillance efforts. Now that we have AI capable of building frighteningly accurate psychological profiles of people based on their browsing habits, using a VPN or other privacy-enabling technology is more important than ever. But simply using a VPN, by itself, does not ensure privacy. There are a few things you need to understand about VPNs before you start using one, if you want to be truly safe online…


1. Don’t use a free VPN unless it’s only to access blocked content.

One of the most common uses for VPNs is to access content that is blocked in your country due to copyright claims, government censorship, or something else. Many people use free VPNs for this, which is perfectly fine. But keep in mind that this is the only time you should use a free VPN. Free VPNs have absolutely no effect on corporations’ ability to track you and collect data on you. Think about it: If they’re not charging for the VPN service, they have to make money somehow. Basically, when it comes to free VPNs, you are the product. Almost all free VPNs collect massive amounts of data on your browsing habits and sell it to other companies. That’s how they get paid. So you might as well use no protection whatsoever. If you want privacy, put down some cash and use a paid VPN.


2. Read the privacy policy.

Not only do all free VPNs collect data on you, but some paid VPNs do too. They don’t usually sell it to other companies, and most of them only collect the bare minimum amount of data needed to conduct business, but some of them do keep a record of what sites you’re visiting and what you’re doing on those sites. And I don’t know about any of you foreigners, but here in the US, all businesses are legally obligated to hand over all data they’ve collected on users if they get subpoenaed. That means any data collected on you by anyone is automatically available to the NSA. So if you’re planning to do anything questionable that could put you under the government’s radar, read the privacy policy and make sure it’s a VPN service that only collects the bare minimum data needed to function. TunnelBear, the service I use, is one of these, but there are others.


3. Know what kind of VPN you’re using.

There are different levels of protection that a VPN can give you. Not all VPNs hide your IP address. This is the case if you’re using a transparent VPN. Make sure the VPN you’re using is an anonymous or elite VPN. An anonymous VPN is a VPN that hides your IP address, while an elite VPN not only hides your IP address but also hides the fact that you’re using a VPN. To determine what kind of VPN you’re using, go to WhatIsMyIP.com and see if it gives you your real IP address.


4. DNS leaks can reveal what sites you’re visiting.

Before your browser can contact a website, it first has to look up the domain name. It does this using the DNS protocol, which involves querying a DNS server for the IP address associated with a particular domain name. This DNS server is typically controlled by either your ISP or some Internet giant like Google. Neither of these two entities have much respect for your privacy. Remember that whoever owns the DNS server can see what sites you’re visiting. On Windows if you run nslookup it will show you 8.8.8.8. That’s Google’s DNS server. What you want to do is configure your router to route all DNS queries to a DNS service that respects your privacy, such as OpenDNS.


5. WebRTC leaks can reveal your IP address.

DNS leaks aren’t the only thing that can leak information to an unintended recipient. WebRTC is a video and audio streaming protocol invented by Google. One of the problems with WebRTC is that it leaks your real IP address to whoever’s on the other end, and they can see exactly who you are just by looking at the headers. To avoid leaking information, there are certain browser extensions like ublock-origin and Privacy Badger that have an option to prevent WebRTC leaks. Keep in mind that this will completely disable a lot of video and audio chats, such as what you would find on Discord. Probably better to stick to text chat if you want to be anonymous.


Overall, if you follow all these rules, and don’t use obvious verbal idiosyncrasies that give you away, you should be able to browse the Internet anonymously and privately.

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