Last updateFri, 29 May 2020 11am

Clarifying the rampant VPN fallacy

A client asked me if using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) would protect his anonymity online.

I suspect he was not pleased by my answer because he wanted a simple solution and the answer I gave him was not that.  One needs to understand LAN and WAN in order to be able to understand VPN and why anonymity is not what a VPN was engineered to deliver.

Local Area Network (LAN) is what exists in most homes and offices today.  If you have two computers, a tablet, smart phone and smart TV then you have a LAN and that is what your devices are connected to.  Your LAN is what enables you to have one internet connection and share it with all your devices.  Your LAN is yours, it is private, and if it is properly installed then it excludes access to unauthorized connections from the outside.  That means the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) cannot browse through your music collection and the IRS cannot just help itself to your financial records.

Wide Area Network (WAN) is the internet.  We all know the internet is public and is wide open to all.  There is very little that is private or secure if it is on the internet.  WAN is supposed to be open to all.

Then there is VPN.  The purpose of a Virtual Private Network is to allow the connecting of one private LAN to another private LAN securely over the insecure internet.  So suppose you have a business with offices in two cities and you wanted to share payroll and bookkeeping information between them.  That could be done via the WAN and it would not take long for every hacker and cyber-crooks online to discover.  To keep your business private, a VPN can be installed between the two offices so that sharing information between your two offices can take place in private even via the public internet.

Many people who do not understand the difference between LAN, WAN and VPN think that having a VPN will automatically give them anonymity online, but they could not be more wrong.  The purpose of a VPN is to provide privacy and security between the two endpoints of the VPN and only those locations.  Even if you use a VPN, the minute you connect to any other place on the internet that is not inside your VPN you are no longer anonymous.  And yes, if you use a VPN to connect to Netflix the company can still know you are not where you say you are.

So how did this misconception that a VPN provides anonymity become so pervasive?  I wish I knew!  I believe it is justified to lay the blame on the VPN providers who prey on people’s fear and ignorance with advertising hype such as “privately browse the web” and “bypass censorship and content surveillance.”  VPN providers tempt customers to believe that paying 100 dollars per year is all they need to do to protect themselves online.  We can only wish life was that simple.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.

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