VPNs and Internet Privacy - 2021-11-22
As of late I've been seeing a lot of renewed interest for internet privacy, particularly regarding certain social media platforms. This is, of course, not something new. This is a struggle that's been going on for years, as you can find even within my own blog post history there are several articles referring to the matter, and it's an issue older than my own posts. Yet what I find baffling is the method being proposed: the use of a VPN.
The purpose of a VPN is (at least for common 'privacy' usage) to hide one's IP address. In this sense, many people simply use VPNs as a substitute for TOR or I2P, but with a better connection and often the ability to choose the country your VPN is located in. If you're using a VPN simply to connect to a web service and avoid country content blocking, then a VPN is definitely a useful tool. But if your purpose is to protect your IP address for privacy reasons, then a VPN is practically useless especially when we're talking about social media surveillance. If you're trying to stop Facebook, Google, or any other company from tracking your online activity, a VPN is quite pointless. There are a few different reasons why this is.
Firstly, if you're using a VPN to log into your Google or Facebook account, then they already know who you are whether or not they know your IP address. They have associated you with the content of your profile, and can track you that way. Sure, they may not know the exact town you live in from your IP address, but they do know (with more precision) from your profile and the content you give them. Therefore, by logging into one of these accounts, you've rendered your efforts to remain anonymous completely futile.
Secondly, and basing off of the previous assumption, once you've logged into an account, or if you have cookies enabled, then you can be tracked all across the web. It doesn't matter that you're sharing a VPN IP address with thousands of other people, because you have a unique string that's being sent to their servers every time you connect that identifies you uniquely. If you log into your Google account, the Google server will store a cookie on your computer that uniquely identifies you. This is normally used to facilitate things like automatic logins the next time you visit the site. However, when you visit another site that may have a Google login available, or if the page uses Google fonts, these servers can ask for your cookies and see whether or not you have that unique identifier, and therefore know identify you uniquely.
Thirdly, regardless of whether you log in to a social media account or not, a website may still identify you by what is called your digital fingerprint. Essentially, when you connect to a website, the server can discover many characteristics about your system, and although none of these might be unique in itself, together they can form a profile that is much more likely to be unique to a single user, and therefore be useful for identification. Some example of characteristics that can be found are such as screen resolution, operating system, architecture, web engine, etc. And since these characteristics tend to remain mostly the same, it is a reliable manner to track someone online. There are also some websites, like AmIUnique, which can show you the kind of data from your system which a web server has access to, and how unique these characteristics are (although based on their own collection, which is a skewed statistic).
On the other hand, the reason why IP address is not a reliable means of tracking someone's activity is, not only because VPNs and other alternatives (e.g. TOR or I2P) are available, but also simply because this will change even if you move, change your provider, commute to work (i.e. use a different network), or simply leave your router off for a given amount of time (normally 24 hours) for your ISP to designate you a new dynamic IP address. Companies like Google and Facebook know this, so it's not reliable. The days when people would almost always connect from the IP address are long gone.
If your interest is in protecting your privacy then a VPN is not worth it, as it's practically useless. Instead, try looking at addons for your browser that spoof your online fingerprint and delete the cookies stored on your computer. But perhaps more importantly, don't use your social media accounts (e.g. Google or Facebook) to connect to any other site than that social media site.
- AmIUnique Website