Why a VPN Is the First Layer You Should Pull On When Browsing the Web
Virtual private networks (VPNs) can be useful for all kinds of things, from streaming foreign sports to protecting your identity from heightened online surveillance. For cryptocurrency users, VPNs are particularly precious, providing access to exchanges that are geo-restricted, and enabling crypto activities to be completed on the web without leaving a privacy-betraying footprint.
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The Rise of the VPN
Virtual private networks can be traced back to 1996 when a Microsoft staffer conceived a peer-to-peer tunneling protocol (PPTP). In many ways, the protocol functioned as a precursor to the VPNs we see today, providing a private, secure connection between a computer and the world wide web, as it was then known.
The advantages of having a permanently encrypted conduit to the web are manifold. Think about how often you unwittingly connect to insecure public wifi, for example, with everything from credit card numbers and social media log-ins vulnerable to theft. A VPN, which lets you connect to a remote server while masking your true location, provides peace of mind by safeguarding data from third-party interception. Virtual private networks also block persistent IP tracking, which is trickier to prevent than insidious third-party tracking e.g. from Google.
The Quest to Decentralize the VPN
VPNs can mitigate the worst data intrusions of centralized agencies (be it tech giants or governments), but they themselves are vulnerable to flaws inherent to centralization. This month, it emerged that popular provider NordVPN suffered a data breach in 2018 when a Finnish server in a rented data center was compromised. Although the company has asserted that no usernames or passwords were intercepted, the fiasco proves that VPNs are not invulnerable to the very attacks they endeavor to protect their users against.
Web3 architects intent on decentralizing all the things have naturally turned their attention to VPNs, where they see the potential to create more robust systems that aren’t vulnerable to the whims of central bodies acting unilaterally, be it hackers or law enforcement. Decentralized VPNs – dVPNs – work by apportioning a percentage of users’ upload bandwidth to carrying traffic for other users on the network. Although still very much in their infancy, dVPNS have the potential to obfuscate your crypto transactions and communications while eliminating the need for a central authority.
One such project is Tachyon. As well as hiding your location, the protocol simulates HTTPS and SMTP, meaning it conceals the sites you browse, fooling others into thinking you’re visiting Youtube and Gmail respectively. Users’ requests are distributed through multiple different nodes with encryption, thereby overcoming the security vulnerabilities and inefficiencies of TCP/IP.
Another proposal, developed as part of the Web3 movement, is VPN⁰, a decentralized network built around a Distributed Hash Table (DHT), atop which sit several privacy-protecting mechanisms. What makes the network particularly unique is that it permits relay nodes to control which traffic they wish to transmit – without specifically learning what the content contains. This feat is achieved through the application of zero-knowledge proofs, a cryptographic technique in which the prover can validate to the verifier that a statement is true, without actually disclosing any information other than the validity of the statement. Developed by a trio of Brave browser security researchers, VPN⁰ awaits further development and funding.
Why Cryptocurrency Users Should Consider a VPN
While everyday internet users are becoming more assertive with their privacy, motivated by widespread coverage of mass data collection and government snooping, bitcoiners have an even greater need for digital discretion. The cryptosphere, after all, has fallen prey to opportunistic hackers, with spear phishing and SIM-swapping just two examples of security breaches that have left traders out of pocket. A VPN is not a cloak of invisibility, granting its wearer carte blanche to evade or commit cyber crime with impunity, but it does heighten your security in a number of meaningful ways.
By encrypting your data when you trade, a VPN makes it more difficult for hackers to eavesdrop. Because VPNs conceal your IP address and prevent persistent IP tracking, your device’s location will not become connected to your wallet address. What’s more, using a remote server to mask your true location more effectively prevents targeted viruses and malware than many expensive software packages designed expressly for this purpose.
Of course, the advantages of VPN use extend beyond bolstering security. They can also widen your options by unblocking geo-blocked websites such as exchanges forbidden in your homeland. By granting unfettered access to otherwise verboten foreign portals, these networks can dramatically improve your trading experience. They can also prove a lifesaver, should your government suddenly censor access to an exchange in which you hold currency, for example.
How to Choose the Right VPN for Your Needs
There are many VPNs to choose from, some free, some paid, and all with pros as well as cons.
Firstly, make sure you pick a VPN that does not store user logs, which could conceivably be handed over to third parties. Some VPN providers insist that this information is mandatory to guarantee optimal service, but in reality, they often sell your data to advertisers. Needless to say, this runs contrary to the very purpose of using a VPN in the first place. In any case, you certainly don’t want time-stamped details of your VPN sessions – as well as sites visited and files downloaded – falling into the wrong hands.
Once you’ve sourced a provider with a definitive zero-log policy, you should think about connection speed, the number of servers in different countries (prioritizing those with multiple severs in privacy-friendly nations), the level of encryption offered, traffic-restriction policies and customer support. It might also be smart to select a VPN that accepts payment in cryptocurrency, which can further enhance your privacy.
Practise Safe Browsing
Privacy absolutists are eagerly awaiting the day when decentralized VPNs become production ready, citing a distrust of centralized gateways’ privacy policies and questions surrounding network stability.
In the meantime, VPNs go a long way to ensuring safety and privacy in our hyper-connected world – and this applies to regular web users as well as those of us in the habit of transacting digital currency. Before you step out into the big bad web, take a moment to clad yourself in a VPN.
Do you think using a VPN provides added security when browsing the web? Let us know in the comments section below.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.
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