A VPN can protect your online privacy. But there's a catch

After US lawmakers vote to end online privacy rules, people are looking for ways to hide their browsing histories.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
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Laura Hautala
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Interest in VPNs hit a five-year high after Congress voted to kill FCC internet privacy rules.

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Your internet service provider can sell your browsing history to the highest bidder.

That's the creepy truth internet users in the US woke up to on Wednesday morning. And it's spurring them to check out tools that can hide their browsing histories and disguise their internet traffic.

On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives voted to kill Federal Communications Commission rules that would have stopped ISPs from selling this data. Later that night, Google searches in the US for a tool called a VPN (short for virtual private network) spiked to a five-year high, according to Google Trends.

Journalists and cybersecurity experts also chattered about VPNs on Twitter.

The uptick in searches (which is relative, and likely doesn't mean everyone on the internet is seeking out a VPN) matched a broader, somewhat manic response to Congress' actions. One man is offering to sell his internet browsing history on eBay, so that he can benefit from this apparent commodity. Another ticked-off internet user started a campaign to buy the internet histories of legislators and a bunch of other people to make them publicly searchable.

Fatemeh Khatibloo, a principal analyst at tech research firm Forrester who focuses on privacy , pointed out that nothing has actually changed about the way ISPs treat your data. That's because the FCC rules hadn't gone into effect yet.

But if you're feeling creeped out, you might be wondering: What's a VPN, anyway? And will it keep the Comcasts, Verizons and other internet service providers of the world out of your business?

Well, it's complicated.

"People have to, unfortunately, take privacy matters into their own hands," said Ajay Arora, CEO of cybersecurity company Vera. "There's no silver bullet."

Problem solved?

A VPN redirects your internet traffic, disguising where your computer, phone or other device is when it makes contact with websites. It also encrypts information you send across the internet, making it unreadable to anyone who intercepts your traffic. That includes your internet service provider.

Ha! Problem solved -- right?

Well, sort of. The big catch is, now the VPN has your internet traffic and browsing history, instead of your ISP. What's to stop the VPN from selling your information to the highest bidder?

Of course, there are reputable VPN services out there, but it's incumbent on you the user to "do your homework," Arora said. In addition to making sure the VPN will actually keep your data private, you'll want to make sure there's nothing shady in the terms and conditions.

Shady how? Well, in 2015, a group of security-minded coders discovered that free VPN service Hola was selling its users' bandwidth to the paying customers of its Luminati service. That meant some random person could have been using your internet connection to do something illegal. So, shady like that.

"I would recommend you do some cursory level research in terms of reputation [and] how long they've been around," Arora said, "And when you sign up, read the fine print."

The second catch is that you have to set up the VPN on your own, on all your devices that connect to the internet. You might even need different VPN services for different devices. Then you have to make sure you're connecting through a VPN at all times. How big of a catch that is depends on how tech-savvy you are and how much time you have on your hands.

Plenty of VPN users don't flip on the service unless they want to protect specific browsing sessions, said David Gorodyansky, CEO of privacy technology company AnchorFree.

He said 80 percent of the time, most people don't care about privacy, like when they're on Facebook. But the other 20 percent of the time is when they care about their privacy and they're more likely to use a VPN app. This could be when they're googling a personal topic.

"When people are searching online or downloading anything about their health, wealth or family, that's when they care about their privacy and download and use the app," he said.

Khatibloo, the Forrester analyst, said even though nothing has really changed in how ISPs are allowed to treat your data, Congress' actions have made people care more about privacy.

"This ruling has shined a light on carriers' and ISPs' data practices," Khatibloo said in an email, "and we expect that will mean an uptick in the number of consumers changing how they do things -- VPNs, the Tor browser, and HTTPS Everywhere."

Those last two tools also disguise internet traffic -- and they're not any easier to use than a VPN.

CNET's Maggie Reardon contributed reporting to this story.

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