Making Privacy on the Internet a Reality With the Help of VPNs

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Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are popular worldwide because they protect the personal information of internet users

The hallmark of the age of the Internet is instant communication and easy accessibility. It is probably ironic that privacy is the least of concerns when browsing the Internet.  As British author, Catherine Butler, said, “Privacy on the Internet? That’s an oxymoron.”

The Internet, with all the convenience and the wonder of instant exchange of information, reveals a dark side of exposing users to unsavory attention. Each browsing of the Internet is an opportunity for cybercriminals, governments and corporations to grab the user’s most personal details like bank balances, medical records, credit card information and other important details that should not be exposed to prying eyes.

People, in general, think that if they are not doing anything wrong, they have no reason to fear anyone watching them surf the web. They mistakenly believe it is an issue of security vs. privacy, and that they are giving up their privacy for the greater good of all mankind.  As American cryptographer Bruce Schneier sees it, the perspective of many indicates that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. Schneier, says, “Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.” He believes the real choice is “liberty vs control.”

Meanwhile, the internet is the world’s prime connector, connecting millions of people from all parts of the world, with individuals able to reach thousands, millions, or even billions of people with a single social media post.

Even as social media sites and search engines are free, people realize at some point, that the sites come at a cost of surrendering their privacy. Corporations tracking user browsing history may sell it to the highest bidder or by analyzing user interest, they show the tracked user-targeted advertisements to generate interest.

Washington DC’s prestigious, non-partisan think tank, Pew Research Center, which  has studied the impact of social media since 2005, when merely 5% of American adults used social media,  recently found that protecting personal information online  is “very important” to 74% of Americans. Another Pew study found that 86% of Americans are acting in their own interests to maintain privacy by deleting cookies, encrypting email, and protecting their IP addresses.

Recent studies also found that while 80% of Americans use social media daily, 96% do not trust social networks to protect their privacy. Users feel very insecure because of recent large scale data breaches at various secured locations. For instance, one of America’s foremost banks, the Capital One bank, recently admitted that the records of almost 106 million people were recently exposed through the bank’s breached databases. In 2017, the consumer credit reporting agency, Equifax, got hacked, compromising the social security numbers of 143 million Americans.

The fallout of such incidents, inevitably, is that the desire for privacy on the Internet increases with time. And so, many internet users are turning to Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology to protect their internet privacy.  What a VPN does is, it extends a private network across a public network, and allows users to exchange information across shared or public networks as if their computers were connected directly to the private network.

The start of VPN goes back to 1996, when a Microsoft employee developed the Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), as a purely business tool. Subsequently, in 1999, the specifications got published and, with time, VPNs came into being. Initially, however, VPNs were only intended to be business tools, providing employees with access to a private business network, affording them the opportunity to see company data from anywhere in the world with the same security as viewing them from office. It was, at the time, a revolutionary concept.

With time, VPN technology changed significantly, and along with it, the needs of Internet users changed a great deal too. Cyber threats appeared from many directions, and users discovered they were being tracked and subjected to surveillance. They felt insecure and vulnerable. And so, more and more internet users around the world sought to protect their privacy and personal data.

Over the years, VPN came to be relied on as an extremely secure way for individuals to protect their identity, and free VPN was much sought after. Studies indicate that half the users of VPN in the world use it to access restricted entertainment content, while 34% of users access social networks or news services, and 31% use VPN to be anonymous while browsing.

Studies also show how, in 2013, almost 25% of internet users in the world have accessed websites through a VPN. From then on, the popularity of the VPN increased in leaps and bounds, showing a 185% increase in VPN usage in 2017, when compared to 2016.

In 2018, the number of VPN users increased by another 165%. Likewise, the global market value of VPN shows a steep upward spiral, from $15.46 billion in 2016, to $18 billion in 2017, to $ 20.60 billion in 2018. In 2019, the global market value of VPN is estimated to be $23.60 billion, climbing to $35.73 billion in 2022.

On the other hand, research of users shows that close to 70% of VPN users are 34 years or younger. This is hardly surprising since those seeking most of their information and entertainment on the Internet, especially seeking streaming content, are Millennials and Gen Z.

Furthermore, online privacy is seen as a necessity today, and there is a UK-based registered charity launched in 1990, called Privacy International, which defends and promotes the right to privacy across the world. This organization created a Privacy Index to indicate how much Internet protection citizens get from their governments. As American businessman and software engineer, Eric Emerson Schmidt, once said, “You have to fight for your privacy or lose it.”

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