Internet Privacy: Expectations vs. Reality

Last updated: February 27 2020 By Dean Chester

VPN misconceptions guide

Welcome, privacy enthusiasts! We are glad to see you again at Cool Tech Zone.

And today, we’d like to talk to you about something that is very important to understand to fully make use of a VPN. On the other hand, this thing is seldom discussed.

It is, of course, myths and misconceptions about VPN technology.

Without further delay, let’s get into it!

Table of contents:


Why there are so many VPN misconceptions

One of the most surprising things for me in my line of work was, I have to admit it, how many people actually care about their online privacy and safety. I’ve met quite a few “laypeople” who were legitimately concerned about their cybersecurity and surveillance their governments and private companies alike put them under, and would like to hide their real IP addresses to up their privacy.

Netizens’ beliefs about data privacy

However, it was not all that positive. I can safely say that the next thing I was the most shocked to learn was that the very same people who wanted to take back their online privacy were quite susceptible to numerous misconceptions about it.

This surprise, as well as my concern for those well-meaning but misguided netizens, made me delve deeper into this problem. I wanted to get to its roots and, to the best of my ability, change the situation for the better.

One of the most important questions I had was why people tend to believe certain things that are not only false but extremely easy to prove false, too. The answer to it is not very reassuring, to be quite honest.

My research has found out that false advertising and downright fearmongering are among the biggest sources of misinformation. Spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) is a pretty common tactic in marketing as well as in politics. Its popularity is simple to explain: when human beings are influenced by strong emotions (and fear along with uncertainty are some of the strongest known to us), they tend to act compulsively.

In the VPN world, it means that the dangers of browsing without a VPN can be overstated to make it easier for potential customers to embrace this technology.

But who, you might ask, would participate in such activities?

Unfortunately, it’s both providers and reviewers. Now, it doesn’t mean that all VPN providers and all VPN reviewers try to influence their audience like that. However, we should keep in mind that even respectful and very powerful technology-wise services sometimes do take part in spreading FUD.

For example, in our review of NordVPN, one of the best VPNs available today, we mentioned how it used exaggerated information in its ads to influence consumers. What it means is that, sadly, one can’t take any information at face value even when it comes from a supposedly trusted source.

In January 2019, NordVPN broadcast ads in the United Kingdom. The ads exaggerated the dangers of public Wi-Fi hotspots, urging concerned people to use NordVPN.

And, of course, people tend to spread FUD. Once they’ve learned about some superb solution to a great danger, they want to share it with their friends and acquaintances. While commendable, it only leads to more misinformation.

Such a situation is twofold. On one hand, it takes advantage of poorly informed people. On the other hand, it can lead to those people losing trust in online privacy solutions in general when they discovered that the magnitude of the threats or the effectiveness of VPNs is not as high as they thought. And, as the proverb goes, a burnt child fears the fire. So the next time, these people will be less trusting of anyone who makes claims about the next big cyber threat and a countermeasure to it.

This is why we on cooltechzone.com think it’s time to shed some light on the most common misconceptions and myths about virtual private networks and to answer some of the biggest questions about this technologyю. Are VPNs really safe? Are they worth paying for?

Read on to find out!


Myths & truth about VPNs: Reality check

In this chapter, I will tell you about the most widespread expectations that people have of a VPN and if these expectations match reality. Here are the subjects we’re going to discuss:

 

Anonymity

There are many VPN services that promise their customers anonymous web browsing. They like to emphasize how an unprotected Internet connection is not safe as the ISP can see exactly what you are doing on the Web. This part is 100% true.

What isn’t 100% true is direct or implied claims of VPNs granting their users some simple yet ultimate anonymity solution that is alone needed to ensure their privacy online. Such claims are somewhat exaggerated at best and downright false advertising at worst.

The reason for it is that VPNs, despite being an invaluable tool for browsing the Internet today, are not the only software that’s required to stay private online. And in fact, the same thing can be said about any other solution such as Tor, virtual machines, etc. Metaphorically speaking, installing a lock on your door isn’t enough if there’s a huge hole in the wall of your house.

It’s necessary to realize what a VPN is capable of doing for your privacy exactly. Here’s the list:

  • it changes your IP address so that websites you visit can’t see your real one. It means that a website wouldn’t know your approximate location thanks to reading your IP;
  • it encrypts your traffic so that your Internet service provider and network provider (for example, your college) doesn’t know what exactly you do online.

Every task requires a specific tool. Virtual private networks are the key to solving the two problems described above.

However, you should always keep in mind that your IP address isn’t the end-all for the parties that want to invade your privacy. There are many other methods used to track you online.

One of the most widespread ones is cookies. Websites you visit save these small files on your computer or other devices to achieve various means: remembering your preferences, keeping you logged into your account, and learning when you visit a given site and how much time you spend there.

So, let’s say you visit a website and it creates a cookie to describe the behavior you exhibit there. Then you turn a VPN on and visit that website again. Your IP address will appear different to it but will it still know it’s you? You bet. The cookie that is still saved in your browser will tell it all it needs to know.

Website can use cookies even with a VPN

Of course, deleting cookies manually or automatically after each session can be implemented alongside a VPN to prevent this from happening. Alternatively, you might disable them entirely in your browser but trust me, using the Internet with cookies disabled is far from what most people would call “fun”.

Besides, there are also other ways of tracking you online such as tracking pixels, JavaScript, browser fingerprinting… the list goes on.

So, does a VPN alone make you anonymous? No, although it doesn’t hurt your anonymity.

Bypassing censorship

For citizens of certain countries, VPNs are absolutely instrumental in their daily lives to get access to news sources and other websites banned by their governments for political reasons. But bypassing Internet censorship is not an easy task and only the very best VPN services can cope with it.

However, the markets of those countries under censorship are quite vast because people there are willing to pay to be able to read news coverage other than that approved by the political party in charge of their country. But obviously, those parties are not interested in allowing any loopholes and workarounds to their policies since their ability to control and suppress any dissent relies on those policies.

Therefore, governments that censor the Internet for their citizens often take steps against the use of VPN technology. There are different ways for them to do that but the most common include enacting laws that require VPN providers to register with the government and comply with its censorship regulations, blocking websites of known services, and blocking VPN traffic.

The truth about VPNs working in China and other countries where the use of this technology is frowned upon is that they absolutely need the obfuscation feature to bypass censorship. Without it, it is apparent to the government-installed traffic analyzing algorithms that somebody is using a VPN.

VPN obfuscation

However, not every service that claims to unblock the entire Internet in oppressive countries actually has this feature. If you need to bypass censorship, you really need to stick with proven services such as NordVPN or Surfshark.

In any case, if the website of a VPN provider is blocked in a particular country, not even obfuscation will help because potential users won’t be able to even download the app.

Unblocking geo-restricted content

While initially and primarily VPNs were a security tool, they have a lot of other uses. One of such is accessing content that is otherwise unavailable in the country of a VPN user. It is similar to the situation with censorship only here it is not some information challenging the dominant regime that is being blocked and not said regime blocking it.

I’m talking, of course, about getting access to geo-restricted content on media streaming websites such as Netflix, Hulu, etc. In case you are not very familiar with the reasons why such content as TV shows, movies, series, and even certain YouTube videos varies in different countries, I’ll give you a brief explanation.

Generally speaking, the rightsholder to any piece of media chooses what company, if any, to sell rights to show this content in every country. Naturally, they gravitate towards those companies that pay the most for such rights. But if Netflix, for example, is willing to pay a lot for one show, it may deem another one less profitable and not buy the rights to it. Moreover, in some countries, certain movies or genres are not popular at all and so the rights to show them there aren’t sold to anyone.

That’s why you can find, let’s say, the original Twilight Zone episodes on Netflix US but not in any other country.

But, as we already established, a VPN service changes its user’s IP address to a virtual one which can look like it originates from any state. Why not use this characteristic of virtual private network technology to unblock restricted content?

Many providers do just that. In fact, some of them have been advertising this feature so much that for some netizens, VPNs are synonymous with bypassing geo-restrictions. However, it’s not necessarily the case.

Netflix and other streaming services have always taken a firm stance against this practice. Honestly, it’s understandable: after all, copyright is involved and failing to uphold it may result in losses and ruined relations with the rightsholders.  However, such a position irritates many VPN users.

The reason for it is that most video streaming sites nowadays implement at least some protection against VPNs and proxies to prevent unauthorized access. If you have ever used a VPN to access Netflix, chances are, you’ve seen this error message at least once or twice:

Netflix proxy error

Nevertheless, the ability to stream geo-restricted content remains a huge factor in the VPN market. Most customers expect it and unfortunately, some are dissatisfied when this promise isn’t fulfilled.

The struggle between VPNs and streaming services is an ongoing one. Often, a provider that could unblock geo-restricted content yesterday falls short today.

My advice is not to take the support of Netflix and websites similar to it for granted with any VPN. The best thing you can do is check if the service of your choosing has servers dedicated to streaming as they have a larger chance of working properly.

On CoolTechZone.com, we regularly test VPNs to see if they work with Netflix and other streaming platforms and update our reviews accordingly.

Check our Best VPN services for Netflix list.

Safe torrenting

Another thing that many VPN providers promise but some don’t deliver is safe torrenting.

There’s nothing illegal about using P2P technology. However, it can be used for nefarious purposes such as downloading and distributing copyrighted content. While some jurisdictions do not care all that much about their citizens partaking in such activities, others such as Germany and Canada enforce certain restrictions on them. Sometimes, a torrent user can even be fined for a large sum of money for obtaining copyrighted materials this way.

Threats to safe torrenting

Governments and ISPs usually get the information that may lead to a user’s conviction from so-called copyright trolls. These people monitor the IPs of the seeders of a certain torrent file as those are clearly visible to other people downloading/sharing the same torrent. Then, they inform the ISP that has issued that IP address of the illegal activity.

Copyright trolls generally work for the rightsholders but there are a few of them who do it just for “fun”.

Alternatively, ISPs can see what kind of traffic goes to and from a user’s device. Some of them are prone to throttling any P2P traffic to limit the bandwidth consumption of that user and to prevent a possible copyright violation.

As you can easily imagine, these problems can be overcome with a VPN: it hides your real IP, making it inaccessible to copyright trolls, and encrypts your web traffic so that your ISP can’t see what it is.

But as it turns out, there are VPNs that do not allow the use of P2P on some or even all of their servers for various reasons. It’s usually not advertised too much – after all, the product not being able to do something isn’t a very good selling point. However, many people assume that a VPN must grant them safe access to torrenting, which is not entirely true.

In our Best VPNs for torrenting article, we provide factual information about 10 reliable providers that work with P2P.

Free VPNs are as good as paid ones

Of all the VPN misconceptions, this one is arguably the most dangerous.  It makes customers put their trust in the wrong apps and providers because they’re led to believe those providers are just as good as paid ones.

However, nothing is really free and if you don’t pay for a service, it’s likely that it makes a profit off of you in some way. The most likely way it can be done is by collecting your personal information such as your real IP address, addresses of the websites you visit, and your other assorted browsing data. Unscrupulous providers often sell this data to advertisers so that you can be targeted by more relevant ads.

Sometimes, free VPNs also have ads built into their apps and they show them to you constantly.

However much money they make on their collaboration with third parties, it’s rarely enough to provide at least acceptable services. Free VPNs are often characterized by the absence of basic security features such as a kill switch, slow speeds, and subpar performance all around.

But bear in mind that not all paid VPNs are created equal, either. Just because a service charges you money for using it, it doesn’t mean that it’s safe. There are known examples of paid VPNs keeping logs and/or leaking real IPs of their users. You don’t need to look further than to Hola VPN to see both problems present in the same service.


How to choose a VPN that won't disappoint you

Well, there are surely tons of misconceptions surrounding virtual private networks. At this point, if you are new to this, you may be asking if you even need a VPN since so many of them play up those myths for promoting their services.

But in the end, a good VPN is hardly a waste of your money. Yes, it isn’t the ultimate anonymity and security solution that will put your mind forever at ease but it does help you bolster your online privacy. Yes, not all VPNs cope with difficult tasks such as streaming, torrenting, and bypassing censorship but there are many that do.

Here are some tips to make it easier for you to choose the right service:

  1. Look for a no-logs provider. If there are no logs of your Internet activity, they can’t be sold to third parties or given to authorities.
  2. Don’t go after free VPNs, use a free trial instead. A free trial allows you to check a service hands-on to see all the features it has to offer. Alternatively, many providers offer quite lengthy refund periods (CyberGhost VPN, for example, promises to issue a refund within 45 days of buying its product).
  3. Read customer reviews in advance. A service may claim it bypasses the Great Firewall of China and unblocks Netflix US with no problem but you’ll be safer to check what real users have to say about it first.

My conclusion

The world of digital privacy has many challenges today and one of the biggest of them is the overabundance of exaggerated and false information about VPN capabilities and properties. Sometimes, it’s spread without any malign intent when people whose knowledge on the subject is a bit lacking take something they’ve heard for truth without questioning it.

It’s important to always keep a cool head when you face fearmongering and/or improbable claims and promises. Then, no one will be able to fool you and your privacy will be secured.

I hope you found this article useful. Thanks for your attention and stay tuned for updates.

CoolTechZone - Chief Editor
Dean Chester
Cybersecurity and online privacy expert and researcher. He's been published on OpenVPN, EC-Council Blog, DevSecOps, AT-T Business, SAP Community, etc. Dean has been testing VPNs for 8 years.

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