- Chuck Gray
Online privacy has been in the news a lot lately. In response to this renewed concern, I’m hearing two main solutions emerge in the chatter among the digerati, one good, one less so. Let’s start with the latter: Web traffic “noise generators.” Noise generators are plug-ins that rapidly open and close browser tabs to random sites. The idea is to hide your genuine Web activity in a haze of random, meaningless traffic. Don’t bother. Obfuscation methods like these will hinder data miners not one bit.
The other idea is to use a VPN or Virtual Private Network. When you connect to sites through a VPN, information about you and the site you’re visiting is funneled through an encrypted network that your ISP (Internet service provider) cannot detect. VPNs are especially handy for public wifi when you want to make sure that no one else on the network can spy on what you’re doing.
VPNs do have a few weaknesses. The first and most obvious is that while you’re hiding your online activity from your ISP, you’re not hiding it from your VPN. Most VPNs vow to not log what you’re doing online at all, and it would be a huge blow to their business if it were to come out they were doing otherwise. Still, that’s still a big leap of faith to take.
Additionally, poorly configured VPNs have the potential to continue to connect to your ISP’s domain name server, making where you’re going online completely visible to them. Should you choose to subscribe to a VPN (never trust a “free” VPN), you’ll want to test it to make sure this isn’t happening. The easiest way to do that is to visit http://dnsleak.com/ and click the green START button in the middle of the screen while you're connected to your VPN.
Finally, commercial VPNs, generally speaking, only work on computers, tablets, and smartphones. The activity generated by other Internet-connected devices such as gaming consoles, streaming video boxes, home voice assistants, or smart appliances is still completely visible to your ISP. Some home routers can be configured to funnel all your Internet traffic through a VPN without the need for a special program or app, but that’s a fair bit more advanced than the average digital denizen is capable of.
All of that said, VPNs are still quite useful as long as you don’t think of them as the solution to all your privacy concerns. I can’t recommend any myself, but both Lifehacker and PC Magazine have their favorites.
For more information about and solutions to the myriad privacy issues we face, please visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation at https://www.eff.org/issues/privacy.