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Since I was a kid, I've had a strong aversion to being watched. It's probably a result of growing up in the winding river lands of southern Manitoba where your nearest neighbour is a cow pasture away. I loved exploring the wind-wavy fields and the clustered clumps of prairie forest that edge along the river bank. Google didn't even exist yet. So, other than the occasional aerial photographer, I was the only one out there. There's nothing like walking carefree and unseen in a private world.
That same freedom is difficult to achieve today — especially where the internet is concerned.
The internet: the place where everything we do is tracked.
It's a bit uncomfortable to think about, but being aware of who's watching you is part of staying safe online. Not all types of tracking are causes for concern, of course, but some certainly are.
The helpful kind of tracking
Pretty much all websites record web traffic. This is done for the sake of understanding the actions users are trying to accomplish, and how well a website is able to facilitate them. This sort of data helps developers (like me) to make websites work better for their users. Page views, scroll maps, geolocation, browser versions, screen sizes — this sort of information is focused on user experience, and is recorded anonymously without your name or personal details attached.
The invasive kind of tracking
What you might not know is that your internet service provider (e.g., Shaw, Bell, Telus, Sasktel, etc.) records your data, too. Everything that passes through their networks is documented, and some of it in plain text, like this:
This sort of information can be linked back to you, because your internet service provider knows who you are, since you pay them for internet access.
Normally, this is no big deal. They use this information for statistical and maintenance purposes, and also to track down disallowed activities occurring on their networks. So if you're not involved with anything illegal, then you have nothing to worry about.
But keep in mind:
Your own internet service provider isn't the only one recording your information; every internet provider is. As you make your way around the internet, you end up using many different networks. When you click a link or type in a URL, your request is travelling through thousands of miles of internet lines, all of which are owned by various telecom companies. If you are in Saskatchewan, Sasktel might have a record of your activity, but so will any number of US internet providers if you navigated to websites like Facebook, Google, or the New York Times.
Again, no big deal if you don't spend any time on questionable websites.
Unfortunately, US internet regulations changed recently (in 2018), and these changes make things a little more uncomfortable.
New threats to your online privacy
For years, “Net Neutrality” has been a much-frequented battle ground where companies like Mozilla defend the internet against government policy and capitalistic interest that seek to commercialize internet traffic.
In 2018, the FCC changed the rules to allow internet service providers to block or slow down particular websites, or to charge companies extra fees to deliver content at faster speeds.
The new rules open the door for internet service providers to charge premiums for access to certain services, or to block access altogether to anyone but those who subscribe to their network. Imagine, for instance, if you had to get your internet from AT&T if you wanted to access Disney Plus.
Delivered from their previous restrictions, US internet service providers are now free to sift through the web traffic you leave on their networks and use it to devise lucrative ways to grant access to a previously open web. The internet hasn't been cut into pieces like this quite yet — but with the FCC's rules out of the way, it is likely only a matter of time.
That's pretty much the opposite of walking carefree and unseen in a private world.
Thankfully, there is a simple way to keep snooping companies off your back and to take back some of your personal space.
Reclaim your privacy with a VPN
Using the internet behind a VPN (“Virtual Private Network”) is like traveling with a false passport and a really good backstory.
When you activate a VPN on your computer or phone, it does a number of things to guard your identity:
1. Location Masking
Your internet access will run through the VPN company's server network, allowing you to connect to the internet from a different location. For instance, you can set your location to the United States or England or Japan.
As part of this, your IP address (the number that identifies who you are and where you are from) is hidden, and you are assigned a new one. The new IP address is what allows you to appear as though you are in the US or England instead of Saskatchewan.
Now when internet service providers record your activity, they will record this new IP address instead of your real one.
In addition to masking your location, a VPN will also encrypt the data you leave behind as you use the internet.
So, instead of showing that you went to mail.google.com or facebook.com/post/1839248929838, you will leave behind an unintelligible string of garbage such as:
Not exactly actionable data.
3. Non-Extradition HQs
Most VPN companies keep their headquarters in non-extradition territories, like the British Virgin Islands or Panama, where the US, Canada, and other countries can't require companies to share their information.
4. No Logs
The majority of VPNs intentionally keep no “paper trail.” This way, even if a VPN network is hacked, there won't be any record of user activity to find.
Surfing the web behind a VPN is a much more secure way to work on the web, since you are nearly fully anonymous. “Nearly” because your account activity is still tracked if you are logged into a service like Google. But the internet service providers will be none the wiser.
Choose your invisibility cloak
There are plenty of free VPNs out there, but they can be unreliable or poorly supported, and painfully slow. It's best to use a paid one.
The most popular options are NordVPN and ExpressVPN. They are very similar in many respects. But Nord is a bit cheaper, and Express is a bit faster. If you want to deep-dive on their pros and cons, here is a great article with lots of test data to look at.
Both Nord and Express are easy to install. Just download the app for your computer or phone, log in, and you're set.
Now you can protect your privacy wherever you go, even when away from home. I always make sure to use my VPN when staying in hotels or when using public wifi, or any time I'm on a network I don't fully trust.
Last note: Keep in mind that, while a VPN puts several obstacles between you and the companies who sniff after your data, it doesn't make you untraceable. Any network can be hacked, and any service can suffer from bugs and vulnerabilities.
As my grandfather used to say,
"Never put something in writing that could one day come back to haunt you."
So browse responsibly, and enjoy reclaiming a bit of that strolling-through-the-riverlands freedom.