The Pros and Cons of Using a VPN for Online Privacy in 2023
“You’re browsing the internet? Unprotected? I can see what you’re doing, you know that, right? I can see everything” PewDiePie starts an advertising talk in one of his videos sponsored by Nord VPN. Then you watch an Apex stream with their three peaked icon peeping from the corner and even explainers, comedians, and music critics are not an exception, and it’s just getting bigger.
Apparently, today virtual private networks (VPN) are a hot topic again, and there are multiple factors PRing it. Both are nice and uncanny. And it’s not just a post-covid revision of the pros and cons of using VPN after it was pushed on civilians so hard for the past challenging years.
A VPN is promoted as an essential tool in the quest for internet privacy and security. It acts as a secure tunnel between your device and the websites or services you visit online, encrypting and shielding your data from prying eyes. But is that all there is?
Before we’ll try to express VPN pros and cons… a short addition to a privacy history guide. When the internet was first introduced to civilians it wasn’t organized with privacy or security in mind (especially giving credit to how vague these terms are even today). In the mid-1990s concept of VPN emerged along with point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP) developed by a vendor consortium, led by Microsoft. This was in response to the need to allow remote users to access corporate networks securely over the Internet. PPTP encapsulates, or “wraps”, data packets in an additional layer of encryption, creating a “tunnel” through the internet that hides the encapsulated data packets from public view. It was integrated then into the Windows operating system beginning with Windows 95, which helped promote its widespread use in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today it’s almost retired due to significant progress in this field clearing the way for more sophisticated technologies. At least leaving behind outdated 128-bit encryption keys.
But its core still lies in creating a semblance of a secret tunnel through the web. Normally, data travels through a series of routers on its way to and from your device. Each one, as a checkpoint, makes data vulnerable to unwanted eyes and even exposed to alteration.
VPN turns it into a code on your device, encryption we call it. Then sends to the VPN server via the already mentioned tunnel. In its turn — the VPN server decrypts the data and sends it on to its final destination. The process is reversed for incoming data. This means that even if someone intercepts your data, all they will see is a petite scramble… if everything goes according to plan, meaning no one will have access to a server with a help of a stolen magic key or anything else is getting compromised.
Santa’s VPN elves are responsible for the full mechanism being able to deliver the needed effect:
Tunneling Protocols: Acting as the miner of the group, protocols like PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, IKEv2, OpenVPN, and WireGuard are crucial in creating the so-called “tunnel”. This “tunnel” establishes a private path for data to travel securely over a public network. VPN protocols’ pros and cons are completely another story, but arguably today OpenVPN and WireGuard are leading the group.
Encryption: Comparable to a Fairy Godmother’s transformative magic, encryption turns readable data into cipher text until it reaches a safe destination. The encrypted data, much like a pumpkin at midnight, is incomprehensible until it’s properly decrypted. The gold standard in this realm is typically AES 256-bit encryption, which offers a high level of security.
Authentication: This is the bouncer of the group, ensuring that both the user and the VPN server are who they claim to be. It’s a critical component of secure communication, verifying the identities of parties involved before data transfer takes place. Standard criteria for this process often involve digital certificates, which are electronic “passwords” that allow a party to prove its identity.
But what are the pros and cons of a VPN usage?
Commonplace Competence: Pros of Using VPN
A few milestones brought us to a huge outburst of refining and globalizing VPN usage, but frankly indirectly through the rise of overall privacy concerns, and we’ll talk about it later. Among them are both the notorious Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Snowden leaks, but additionally less famous (because of its corporate nature) Sony Pictures hack and the raise of Geoblocks all over the globe. No doubt, people today are much more aware of web dangers and alerted about surveillance, so they turn to instruments to enhance their security and privacy.
Now information about VPNs is in abundance and the variety of providers is hard to even count. The undoubted pros of a VPN help are that it’s proven to work for people whose lives depend on technologies like this. Activists, guerillas, and journalists, so-called independent watchdogs of justice — are now highly incorporated by other civilians. Myanmar’s resistance to military rule, Hong Kong protesters, and Iranian “Woman. Life. Freedom” movement members were all reported using VPN as a crucial tool to reach the outside world for help and information. Journalists, who are too constantly watched found it especially useful in covering events from restricted areas and protecting sources from surveillance. Let’s put together a simple list that won’t be much different from the majority of others, but that’s just a warm-up.
And let’s not forget how Covid-19 made people remember the original sin of VPN — corporate needs. with its unexpected twists and turns, brought back into the spotlight one of the initial applications of VPN technology: fulfilling corporate requirements. As companies worldwide switched to remote work structures, VPNs became a crucial tool to secure corporate networks and protect sensitive business data. The remote working scenario necessitated reliable, secure communication lines between employees’ home networks and company servers, leading to a substantial surge in VPN usage. It proved to be the silver bullet, providing secure access to corporate resources, encrypting data in transit, and maintaining business continuity in the face of the unprecedented shift to home offices.
Mainstream pros of VPN:
Data Encryption and IP Masking: is anything else needed to be said? Significantly reduce the risk of identity theft. They prevent potential attackers from accessing personal details that could be used to track your online activities and steal your identity.
Secure Public Wi-Fi Use: public Wi-Fi is a feral animal. I mean, man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks are sadly still a thing, because not so many access points are giving proper care to users’ privacy and encrypting and are likely to be compromised
Bypassing Geoblocking: though apparently, Netflix so far is not as easy to trick with a changed location, the bypass of limited access to content based on the user’s location restrictions and censorship is a great assistance. Or a more routine need like access to home services might have restrictions when accessed from abroad and VPN can make it appear as if you’re still there.
Preventing ISP Throttling: less common today, but real. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) sometimes throttle or slow down internet speeds when they detect heavy data usage, such as streaming or large file downloads. This is done to manage network traffic and prevent congestion. A VPN can help avoid this by masking your online activities from your ISP. Since the ISP can’t see that you’re streaming a movie or downloading a large file, they’re less likely to throttle your bandwidth.
But there are shadow horses in this game, vpn pros usually overlooked and more down to earth for an average user:
Online Gaming Experience: Sometimes VPNs come in handy in reducing ping times and lags in your first-person shooter or other video games. Improves gaming experience and mood. (explains why many streamers have contracts with VPN providers, huh?)
VoIP Security: Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls aren’t always secure and have the risk of being intercepted too. Using a VPN can help protect the call’s contents a little bit. It’s not much, but it’s an honest job.
Price Discrimination: By changing the apparent location, a VPN might help users find better deals as well as prevent online retailers from showing higher prices based on your browsing history or location. Curiously, this point will be involved both in the pros and cons of a VPN connection.
Network Scalability: For businesses, VPNs provide a cost-effective way to scale the network as the company grows.
Cons: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
It’s 2023 already, let’s be candid, studies neglected VPN a bit too long, but 2022 was quite a breakthrough in the field of research. Maybe even too blunt. VPNs do not protect against all forms of tracking, such as browser fingerprinting or cookies placed on your device by websites. Therefore, they should be used as part of a broader approach. In the battle of pros and cons of VPN — second are usually whitewashed by providers’ talk and bribery.
These innocuous disadvantages you probably met already and experience yourself:
Decrease in Internet Speed: when your internet traffic is encrypted and routed through a server located elsewhere, no surprise it can potentially affect the internet speed. Workarounds function like that. This impact can be more noticeable if the VPN server is located far away from your actual location or if the VPN service does not have enough bandwidth
Incompatibility with Certain Websites or Services: Some websites or online services may block traffic from known VPN servers to prevent abuse or fraudulent activity. This is especially common with streaming services, which often restrict content based on geographic location.
Trustworthiness of free and unreputable VPN Providers: keeping the logs of your activity, defeating the purpose of using a VPN for privacy, or not use robust encryption… oh, those vile providers promising to give you everything for free
Regulatory Considerations and Potential Legal Issues: The use of VPNs is frowned upon or even outlawed in some countries. In these cases, using a VPN could potentially land you in legal trouble. Even in countries where VPN use is legal, certain activities carried out while using a VPN may still be illegal.
Technical Difficulties and Learning Curve: While many VPN services strive to make their software as user-friendly as possible, some people may still find the technology intimidating or confusing. Setting up a VPN can involve several steps, and troubleshooting connection issues can be complex.
Cost of Premium VPN Services: While there are free VPN services available, they often come with significant limitations such as data caps, fewer server choices, slower speeds, or advertising. Premium VPN services, usually require a monthly or annual fee. This cost can be a barrier for some users, particularly those who need VPN services on multiple devices.
A little less familiar info was expected to find a narrower reader, like the spawned with Covid-19 and its aftermath troubles in the matters of corporate life. Addressing security, flexibility, management, and troubleshooting in the growing then need of bringing together remote company population. As the world of work has shifted away from headquarters and branch office operations, networks have been slower to change. As your users and applications become ever more distributed, a centralized architecture no longer makes sense.
Blah-blah-blah. Let’s move to the real talk and issue in the VPN pros-cons matters.
Remember the rant about the overwhelming wave of VPN promotion and providers popping out of nowhere, and how…
All of Them Claim to Be the Best
Let’s rewind a bit. 2013, thanks to Mr. Snowden — government surveillance programs get their moment of fame and fear. The future of privacy is heavily questioned. People, who in denial, others paranoid, start looking for means of secrecy. Sure enough, creatures of habit, they’re easily lured into practices that don’t require too much effort. The path of least resistance is understandable and primarily instinctive. VPN, which already was quite widespread because of geo-restrictions, gets wild. And so do people who find a gold mine in it, tapping the easily triggered fear, so good for commerce.
Since then there is an obvious shift in concerns toward corporate and advertisement surveillance. The growing awareness fueled by suspiciously omnipresent texts promoting VPN as, if not a panacea, but as the best option makes its job done well. As well as seeding myths among users that are so repetitively chanted that everyone can’t help but believe in the common misconception. Today VPN is a Wallstreet Wolfie, it’s a growing multi-billion dollar industry where without regulations almost everything can be told to a customer to get his or her money.
And let’s call out the main disadvantages that usually are hidden from the user’s eye.
2022 was surprisingly rich in research, and one of the most outstanding is “All of them claim to be the best” by Reethika Ramesh, Anjali Vyas, and Roya Ensaf, which claims to be “the first multi-perspective study that uses a quantitative survey of VPN users in the U.S. along with qualitative interviews of nine leading VPN providers.” Their finds are pretty chilling, especially while concentrating on misalignments in users’ mental models and the real state of what VPN provides them with. Meaning, for example, that marketing, preying upon users’ lack of knowledge turned it upside down. Let’s sum up some problems raised by them:
One provider calls it the wild west: You know we could just say literally anything…there’s absolutely no oversight. There’s no one to tell you, “Ah, you can’t say that because that’s not true.” There’s no regulation, there’s no kind of governing body.
Reethika Ramesh, Anjali Vyas, and Roya Ensaf, “All of them claim to be the best”
Problematic Review Ecosystem and Bribery: though providers agree that the reviews are largely motivated by money and aren’t objective, users strongly rely on them like on trustworthy sources.
Shady Providers: these include VPN providers having anonymous or unknown owners and the claims of VPN server locations, being found in at least one-third of the 2269 servers (Weinberg, Open VPN is open to the VPN fingerprinting, 2022) not in the country advertised, and the same amount not in the location they claim (Cambridge Analytica stans, duh).
Common misconceptions: over 40% of users aren’t so sure exactly what data is being collected about them by VPN providers. 13% of the remaining users have concerns that VPNs collect unreasonable kinds of data. On the contrary, VPN providers say that they clearly communicate their logging practices, or do no logging and have audits to prove it. These users still believe their ISP can still see the websites they visit over the VPN, but mostly (except for high-expertise ones) have no clue about the DNS provider, or the site itself (cookies) seeing it.
Malicious advertising and marketing in general: YouTube materials containing VPN ads show a number of concerning misleading claims (Akgul, Investigating Influencer VPN Ads on YouTube, 2022), like over-promises and exaggerations, probably adding to inaccurate mental models of internet safety. “The best ways to get people to pay for something is to scare them and to tell them that they need security” says one more provider, again advocating for taking advantage of users’ prime emotion. And as providers in a race for users’ attention are incorporating adblockers and other technologies, the promotion of these additions confuses customers to believe it’s an inherent nature of all VPNs.
Toss a coin to a Provider: prices and discounts are bound to have a colossal effect on many users, from a capitalistic trust in a pricy one to “the best deal”.
But if it seems like an issue revolving only around the ignorance of those who are taken advantage of and can be speculated as their own problem. Everyone is responsible for his or her own salvation and etc, etc, etc. But there are more valid concerns about the structure of modern VPN providers in a nutshell.
The largest investigation into 80 desktop VPNs “VPNalyzer: Systematic Investigation of the VPN Ecosystem” (2022) shows some surprising key issues. These to be:
- this investigation is the first to unveil a concerning fact that most VPN providers fall short in supporting IPv6 – a mere 11 out of the 80 assessed providers showed compatibility.
- a considerable number of VPN services, 26 to be exact, were found to expose user data to ISPs during tunnel disruptions. These providers are subdivided into two groups: eight leak solely DNS traffic, while the remaining 18 have a more extensive range of leaks.
- DNS security and privacy measures were found lacking among many providers. Measurements for DNSSEC support and the use of Query Name Minimization revealed this unsettling truth.
- malicious and deceptive behaviors such as traffic interception are not widespread but are not non-existent
- the investigation found that a number of VPN providers route their DNS service via hosting platforms such as Amazon, Linode, and Digital Ocean, in contrast to their VPN server locations. Users, who pay for their VPN service, remain unaware that their traffic is also being directed towards third-party organizations like Google, in addition to their VPN provider.
So, the inherent evil can be named a widely adopted black box. But what’s the point in using something for a purpose it won’t fulfill?
After all, the devil is in the details. VPN pros and cons are just factors better have in mind while deciding which VPN to choose or if you even need it. Without any regulations in the industry and really resembles the wild-wild West. Sadly adoption of practices considered security and privacy essentials is not uniform across VPN providers, that’s why the burden of users’ own safety lies on their shoulders for now. Think wisely, make a list of your privacy and security needs, and make sure they align with what really provides VPN. Because, for example, usage of public Wi-Fi points is getting better and mostly isn’t needed if you have an opportunity to have a portable 5G or 6G soon (in your smartphone, of course), and cookies stored on your local device don’t give a damn about VPN. If you’re not a journalist or activist, there’s a chance that your needs in VPN won’t be so much about security, but privacy — sure. Otherwise, turn your eyes to providers supporting IPv6, paying good attention to the right DNS and those that proved to care about human rights. For example, you can look at Mullvad VPN which gave away tons of keys for activists, and a marketing shark telling its users about the leakage of data a year after it’s happening — Nord VPN, pros and cons of which are on the surface.
Take care, and call out the misleading VPN advertisement or unethical policies, we’ll always be by your side.
VPNs can help you maintain online privacy by encrypting your data and masking your IP address. They can also provide secure access to public Wi-Fi networks, bypass geoblocking, prevent ISP throttling, improve your online gaming experience, enhance VoIP security, and aid in network scalability for businesses.
No, VPNs are just one of many tools you can use to enhance your online privacy. They encrypt your data and mask your IP, but they don’t protect against all forms of tracking, such as cookies or browser fingerprinting. It’s always important to use a comprehensive approach to online privacy. Pros and cons VPN bears are better to be equally looked into before opting in.
Our team is in continuous commitment to user privacy and security. That’s why we implemented a built-in VPN service (in paid version). The VPN is designed to be user-friendly and easily activated directly from the browser interface. Once enabled, all browser traffic is encrypted and routed through a network of secure servers, ensuring your online activities remain private and your data is protected from potential threats. Sidekick’s VPN is also mindful of performance, aiming to minimize the impact on the internet speed that can be common with VPN use.
Yes, VPNs can potentially slow down your internet speed, be incompatible with certain websites, have issues of trust with providers, pose regulatory considerations and potential legal issues, present technical difficulties, and cost more for premium services.
MPLS excels in Quality of Service, scalability, performance, and reliability, but is generally more expensive, requires specialized knowledge, and offers less user control. VPN, on the other hand, is cost-effective, enhances privacy and security with data encryption, and offers flexibility for remote access. However, VPNs may experience performance issues due to internet congestion, lacks inherent Quality of Service, and may not be as reliable as MPLS. The choice between the two depends on your specific needs and constraints, such as budget, performance requirements, and security needs.