How a VPN Service protects you from NSA Monitoring

There was no shortage of excitement at SurfEasy headquarters last week! We were putting the final touches on our recently launched SurfEasy VPN when one of the biggest online privacy stories of the year hit the press. Suddenly, friends, family and people I haven’t spoken to in months were asking how SurfEasy can protect their privacy in the face of such pervasive surveillance. Let me share the answer I gave to my friends and family with you.

Based on what has been published about NSA surveillance there are two primary things happening: 

  1. Big Brother is watching your Internet traffic at the transport layer
  2. “They” are plugged into your favorite websites

So how can a VPN help?  In short, a VPN gives you the power to choose if you want to share your online life vs. having no choice in the matter. Let me explain.

PROBLEM #1: Traffic Inspection

SOLUTION: VPN

Some carriers and Internet service providers allegedly gave the NSA unfiltered access to their data streams. To put it simply, they installed a splitter to their network that sends your data traffic along its normal route and to an NSA data center. It’s like a cable splitter – for anyone that remembers those. 

With this setup, everything you do online is exposed. There’s no way to know if the network you’re using intercepts Internet traffic and even if you did know, it’s not really possible to decide which networks you use. Your data will travel across a number of routes to get to its destination. If any of those points are compromised, your online privacy is out the window.   

This is where the right VPN can really help. VPN’s create an encrypted tunnel for your data to pass through, making it virtually impossible for anyone to decrypt or monitor. In the case of SurfEasy VPN, anyone looking at the data stream will only see that you are connected to our Private Network and that encrypted data is being transmitted. 

Once your data hits our server, it’s decrypted to allow communication with the destination server (for example, Facebook would not be able to understand the data if it was still encrypted).  From that point on, the security of your data is really based on the behavior of the website you’re visiting – which brings us to problem number two.

PROBLEM #2: Source Monitoring

SOLUTION:  CHOICE

The most extreme allegations are that the NSA has unfiltered access to some of the world’s top websites.  However, every major site implicated in this allegation has come out and adamantly denied that this is not true (and not in the way that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford denies stuff – but really seriously denying). What seems more likely is that through a process of court-issued subpoenas, web service providers are compelled to hand over specific information on a user. With at least some level of oversight in this process there seems to be a little less to worry about here for most people. However, there are many who believe this process lacks oversight and any real judicial process – and this is where a personal level of comfort and balance of trust and convenience comes into play.

Moving our communications and data to the cloud has massive convenience advantages but you need to trust who you’re working with.  Using a VPN can give you a choice in the matter – but to be clear, it’s not a silver bullet.   

When I think about the web services I use, I break my web relationships into two categories:

1. Websites I want to have a relationship with. I trust them with my personal information. On these sites I’m creating an account, sharing my email, name and other personal details.  These are sites I choose to trust based on my personal tolerance for privacy vs. convenience.  I’m consistently evaluating these choices and making changes to the sites I use based on my level of trust and transparency around how they use my information.  The great thing about the expansion of the web is just how many choices there are out there – I never feel l have to stick with a provider I don’t trust. Ultimately, if I choose to share personal information with this site, it’s my relationship with them that defines how my data is used.

2. Websites I don’t want to have a relationship with.  This is where a VPN can help. Not every website I visit I want to have a relationship with. In fact, most of what I do online I want to remain private.  But even if you don’t log into a site, you can still be identified and tracked. This is where the right VPN can help. Services like ours that shield your IP address and operate a no-log network offer protection against leaking your identity unintentionally to websites you don’t trust.  When you visit a website using SurfEasy, the website sees us, not you, and because we don’t keep any logs of your online activity, your browsing is completely private. 

Bottom line

Whether its Big Brother or Big Data, there is no doubt that there is a massive industry around knowing who you are and what you do online, even when you don’t want to volunteer that information. Some people are not bothered by that. For those who want more control, there’s a balancing act between privacy and convenience and where you fall on that spectrum is a personal choice. A VPN is a big part of taking back control of your privacy and being able to choose what you share online.