Many lessons were learned in enterprise IT and security teams in 2020, right down to the final weeks of the year with the SolarWinds attack. We closed out a miserable year with a devastating reminder about the danger of third party access and supply chain attacks.
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Browsing without using a VPN ? Think twice
Why is a VPN so important ?
Picture this. You're surfing the web at home, minding your own business, and suddenly a raft of unexpected adverts relating to what you've been looking at on the web appear in front of you as soon as you visit another site, or perhaps take a break and come back to your browser session later..... As invasive as this sounds, it's not uncommon by any stretch of the imagination - neither is the sale of your browsing history to third parties - and even worse, such activity isn't illegal. Ok, so your smart... you open an Incognito browser session, so now nobody can see what you're doing, right ?
The Incognito browser session doesn't record anything locally on your PC, and will destroy all browsing evidence as soon as you close that tab, but don't be under any illusion (or let anyone convince you otherwise) that your browsing activities are masked from the outside world. They aren't. All internet requests will spool through your internet service provider. They can see all of your browsing activity, what sites you've been to, what you've been looking at etc, etc. so full privacy in this case is a misconception. The only way to stay truly anonymous anywhere in this digital world is to live completely off the grid in a forest somewhere. No cell phone, no address, no internet, nothing - especially not social media. However, whilst we all want privacy, yet have no real intentions of getting back to nature and basics in order to maintain that, what's the next best thing ?
Use a VPN to surf the web
The foremost solution to the privacy conundrum is to use a VPN service to surf the web. Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) will know what IP Address you have been issued, and will see that you are connected to a VPN service, but owing to the nature of the traffic being encrypted between your machine and the VPN endpoint, the ISP will not be able to see or inspect any of the resultant traffic. Sounds great, right ? Yes, of course it does, and there are plenty of providers out there that will offer this service relatively cheaply. A VPN is also used to work around GEO fencing (geographical restrictions applied to services such as Netflix to prevent access to US based content from another country for example) - when you are connected to the VPN, you are connected to a US based endpoint, meaning Netflix thinks you are in the US, and then serves the content as a result. Netflix has some of the toughest GEO restrictions in place, but there are a small handful of providers who are able to bypass this - some even have a high success rate in China.
The downside to the cheaper VPN's is that they can actually see what you are accessing, and therefore, could provide this to external parties, or divulge it at the request of a subpoena. Worse still, that VPN which is supposed to mask your activity in fact is doing the opposite in the sense that although the ISP can no longer see what you are doing, the VPN operator can. When you are looking for a VPN service, it's important to choose one that offers privacy and security. One that immediately springs to mind for me (and yes, I use this myself on all PC's and my cell phone) is NordVPN. The real reason for this is that the company is based in Panama - a privacy haven by default, and does not log any of your traffic. They have two independent audits completed by one of the big 4 firms (PwC), and also a well known security firm. Both entities drew the same conclusion - NordVPN does not keep logs of user activity, and it does not track you either.
To anyone else reading this thread and thinking that this isn't true, then you've never been through an audit in your life . If you claim to do something and then can't prove it in an audit, you'll fail that same process and you'll be out of business before you know it owing to a loss of client trust and confidence alone. It's important to note that, auditing is a double edged sword. Sure, you are stating your compliance to a set of narratives (direct instructions exactly how you conduct business, and the operation itself), but auditors will look for any chink in the armour - this is what they are paid to do. This is why you never self audit, but always gain independent attestation of your controls by a third party with no bias.
Currently, NordVPN do log some activity to disk (nothing that identifies you or your browsing session) so that does raise the question of retention etc, but is shortly moving to a RAM based model where once the server has been rebooted, all traces of any activity are forensically destroyed.
I was going to write a review about my favourite VPN service (NordVPN), but seeing as VPN Mentor beat me to it I'll just leave this here. It's very thorough, and a great read.