Why You Should Care About a VPN's Logging Policy
If you’ve ever logged on to the Internet from an airport, coffee shop, university or library, you’re accessing public WiFi networks. When you log on, your device will usually pop up a warning that data shared on this network can be compromised, so be careful about exposing your personal information.
To be quite frank, most people don’t give that warning much more than a passing thought, much to the delight of hackers and criminals everywhere.If you want to protect yourself and your data when browsing the Internet on a public network, there’s only one real solution out there for you; investing in a Virtual Private Network (VPN). But how secure is a VPN and how much information do VPN companies really keep on their customers?
What is a VPN?
A VPN is a secure connection that allows you to send and receive information from the Internet or a privately-owned network. It uses an encryption process to make it impossible for anyone to see what data is moving to or from your computer. A VPN is an extra layer of privacy and security for your online activity when you aren’t using a secured server.
VPNs aren’t just for individuals using the Internet in public, however. Companies use VPNs to move secure data across the Internet to ensure a secure transfer between networks.
How does a VPN work?
Once upon a time, the Internet was referred to as the ‘information superhighway.’ We can consider a visual of that to describe how a VPN works. Envision a highway full of cars representing Internet users. From above, we can get a lot of information about them - what color car they have, how fast they are driving, what exit they are getting off at, their car model and age, and if we’ll look closer, even their gender, the number of people in the car, etc.
Now imagine the highway is instead a covered tunnel, like the kind that cuts through mountains or goes underwater between destinations. From the outsider’s perspective, we are still certain there are cars passing through the tunnel, but their identifying information - color, model, who’s driving, etc. - are hidden from our view.
A VPN serves as your covered tunnel. It establishes an encrypted connection between your device and a VPN server through which all the information you’re sending and receiving from the Internet passes. Once at the VPN server, the information then goes on to the actual websites or services online that you are using. Much like in the highway example above, someone attempting to view your online activity would only be able to glean that you are using the Internet, not what information you are sending or receiving.
VPNs and Privacy
Every VPN company in the world will brag on how secure it is and how your browsing will remain anonymous, but there are different strata of protection and privacy at work here that you need to be aware of. You can click here to see a list of VPNs sorted by price to get a feel for the different players on the market. The term ‘logs’ refers to the data that VPN companies keep on the sessions you utilize their services for. Just like a normal Internet Service Provider (ISP) keeps data on the sites you visit and how long you’re there, so too do VPN companies. The fewer logs they keep, typically the more anonymous you are online. The number they keep often depends on factors such as what the laws of the country they are based in say about such data, as well as how much analytical data the company desires for its own business efficiency. Some VPN companies also include in extremely fine print that they are keeping logs in order to sell your advertising preferences to third parties in order to make money, and those are among the ones you need to watch out for. Let’s take a closer look at what type of logs VPN companies are keeping and what it means to you as a consumer.
These are known by a variety of names, including usage logs, diagnostic logs, and metadata. In general, they collect timestamps, meaning when you first activated the VPN proxy, how long it was active on your device, and when you logged off. It also will tabulate how much bandwidth you used during that session, and every subsequent session. The number-one reason that this sort of data is collected is for the VPN company to maximize its own efficiency, return on investment, and to enforce any policies it might have in place about how much bandwidth individual users can consume under their agreements. There are plenty of VPNs that offer you unlimited amounts of bandwidth per month; you can click here to compare them. But others have very specific limitations in place where you pay a certain amount of money for a certain amount of bandwidth over a certain space of time, much like SIM cards in certain countries. Since the company can’t simply take your word for it that you’re going to terminate the connection when you get to 100MB for the month, the tracking data acts as the traffic cop for your arrangement. The timestamps offer secondary functionality for efficiency as companies can analyze what their peak hours are and when there are very few active users. That allows them to ratchet up their number of servers and connections during times when there are numerous users online, and lower it to save money when everyone’s asleep or at work. There is some risk of your privacy being invaded here if VPNs are tying your timestamps and usage to your personal account. While some companies demand authenticated personal information to open an account, others are far less stringent, and only need a form of payment and a disposable email account to send notices to.
IP Address logs
IP address logs are what most VPN providers claim they are not keeping in their “no logs” advertisements. However some continue to do so to comply with their own home countries’ policies on fair information, and it can lead to trouble for their customers. IP address logs keep track of where you are located in the country when you log onto the VPN server. The entire purpose of using a VPN is to mask your own IP address, for whatever purpose you see fit. For some people, it’s as innocuous as wanting to watch a TV show that’s only available in another country. For others, it’s about protecting their data and information when they are in a public place like an airport or a coffee shop. For others still, it’s a matter of circumventing censorship laws in countries like North Korea, China, and Russia, that block anyone in their borders from viewing certain websites or materials. But if the VPN company is keeping logs that tie your IP address to your timestamps and usages, it could be exposed to third parties like advertisers, hackers, and government agencies that can do you significant harm.
The most dangerous logs that VPN companies can potentially hold onto are traffic logs - quite simply, your Internet traffic. When you’re using a VPN connection, this can include your browsing history, any files you have downloaded, any purchases you have made, any financial information you have entered, messages you’ve sent, keystrokes entered, and software used. In short, you have very little in the way of privacy for a service that has “Private” in its name. If you see a free VPN company offering services - check out this list to see which ones to be wary of - it’s very likely it will keep your traffic logs and sell them to advertisers and other third parties who want your personal information to try and market other products to you. Those are the lightweights! Other free VPN companies have been known to sell, barter, or trade information straight onto the dark web where hackers and cybercriminals are all too happy to gobble up your personal identification information (PII) and any other tidbits about your life that you shared online, incorrectly assuming that you were being protected.
Knowing a VPN’s log policy is perhaps the most important factor in deciding which one to invest in. Generally speaking, the more vague the language and the cheaper the price of the service, the more likely the company is to be using at least IP address logs if not those and traffic logs as well, utterly defeating the purpose of using a VPN in the first place, and heightening your chances of having your information stolen or used against you while employing a VPN. To ensure you are protected, do ample research and compare as many VPNs as you can in order to pick the one that best suits all of your needs.