Ask the Expert: Can a VPN Protect You From Government Surveillance?

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Q: “I am really worried about the NSA surveillance of American citizens. I can’t believe this is even legal. More importantly, I’m wondering what I have to do to protect myself. If I use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi, will it protect me from government surveillance?”

A: The NSA (National Security Agency) story about how the government is spying on us is is indeed disturbing. What’s interesting about this story is that it’s not exactly new information. PRIVATE WiFi has been publishing stories about this stuff for years: how the government is asking for backdoor access to popular websites, how they are creating huge databases that store all the emails we send, and how data brokers hijack your information and sell it to the highest bidder, just to name a couple of our most popular articles.

What’s different now is that the public knows about it, and many are outraged. Perhaps this is the turning point when the general public begins to take their online security seriously.

But first, let’s look at what the government knows about you and how they got the information. Then I’ll discuss what you can do to protect yourself.

What the Government Knows About You

The NSA implemented a project called PRISM in 2007 that intercepted communications between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. This included users of some of the biggest online companies, including Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, and YouTube.

So what was the NSA monitoring? Almost everything: email, IM chats, videos, photos, stored data, VOIP (Internet phone calls), social network information, and video conferences. And recently, the government has also admitted to tracking and storing phone conversations.

But isn’t this illegal? Technically, no.

The U.S. government has said these projects did not specifically target any U.S. citizens indiscriminately, as this would potentially be an “unreasonable search” that is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. If you’re wondering how the government was able to get this private information, according to The Guardian who broke the PRISM story, the government did it without any company’s participation or knowledge. It’s possible that the government simply tapped into routers and compiled this information on their own.

Either way, it’s not really that hard to do.

How a VPN Can Protect You from Government Surveillance

The good news is that it’s not really that difficult to stop the government’s ability to spy on you online. It’s not like they are using some kind of advanced technology to do it. And let’s be honest: data brokers and cyberthieves have been doing the same thing for years.

It’s a good rule of thumb to assume that everything you do online can be viewed by others. So, it’s probably not a good idea not to let your Facebook friends know that you will be on vacation for two weeks and leaving your home unoccupied, or log into your online bank account while using an unsecured WiFi network at the airport.

Also, it’s a good idea to change your password to complex ones (a mixture of letters, numbers and special characters) and to change them every few months. Your security is only as good as your weakest password. You can also install a product called Ghostery on your Internet browsers which prevents websites from tracking you.

But you can take all of these precautions and still be vulnerable. Everything you search for on Google, every website you visit, every email you send to your friends can easily be snooped on by the NSA. Don’t want the government to know what you are doing? Then it’s time to get a VPN.

A VPN, or virtual private network, is software that secures and privatizes data across the Internet by building an “encrypted tunnel.” When you access the Internet, your data passes through this tunnel which protects it from anyone who tries to intercept it. A VPN like PRIVATE WiFi encrypts everything: your email, your web browsing history, your IMs, your VOIP, everything. Another benefit of using a VPN is that even if your data is intercepted, your identity is protected, since a VPN masks your IP address.

So now the secret’s out: the government is spying on you and has been for quite some time.

Maybe this confirms what you already thought or maybe this is news to you. Either way, you can protect yourself and your data from any kind of surveillance, government or otherwise, by using a VPN.

 

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Kent Lawson

Kent Lawson is the CEO & Chairman of Private Communications Corporation and creator of its flagship software PRIVATE WiFi. He combined his extensive business and technical experience to develop PRIVATE WiFi in 2010. The software is an easy-to-use Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects your sensitive personal information whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network. Follow Kent on Twitter: @KentLawson.

  • yayayes

    NSA XKEYSCORE Program;

    “Show me all the VPN startups in country X, and give me the data so I can decrypt and discover the users.”

    I think you need to update this article.

  • yayayes

    NSA XKeyscore Program;

    “Show me all the VPN startups in country X, and give me the data so I can decrypt and discover the users.”

    So VPN’s are no longer safe.

  • Timothy Shaw

    Vpn’s work quite well. Vpn’s work so well in fact that NY unemployment suspended my benefits for 4 months just because they coulden’t verify my locaction. It took me a whole unpaid month just to find out that it was due to being ‘pinged”.
    It took two more unpaid months to find out that they don’t tell anyone because their afraid that New yorker’s vactioning (or working) out of the country will transfer their i.p. address back to the U.S. and claim benefits.
    I use public wifi and vpn’s for more than 50% of my networking and I was clueless that NY was spying on me and I was clueless about their vpn policy.
    Because they suspended my benefits for months without explanation I am TELLING EVERYONE.

  • Denis English, Ph.D.

    “The good news is that it is not all that difficult to stop the government’s ability to spy on you onine..”
    Wanna bet???
    In my case, as I put it together retrospectively, the spys established some sort of dial-up VPN connection to my PCs that started everytime I accessed the internet and did so without my knopwledge. This lasted for over a year till I caught on. I am not exactly sure how that VPN to my computer was established, and although the dial-up boxes and passwords were configured on my computer, I didn’t use dial-up; i believe my Verison Wi Fi was intercepted by a nearby router (initially), a VPN was established and then wheneveer I asked my WiFi to go on line, I was telling the neighboring router to access the dial-up VPN then go on line with the neighbor in the middle (Initally, I had sync problems with Hotmail. MSN said they needed to put a “hotmail Remote assistant” on the case as it was very extensive (Microsoft and Verison assisted in ANY WAY that they could,. not just didn’t interfer, they aided essentially). Immediately after the remote assistant gained access, the VPN was established and my email went blank for about a week (whlile all my emails for 15 years were downloaded and copied.) Then, among the first things done was to intercept my Facebook postings. I didn’t know why for theeeeeeeeee longest time, then I read a few weeks ago about NSA’s “man on the side” attacks using Facebook (they actually use Man in the Middle, and changed many private messages).

    More later..
    PS…They also use LinledIN heavily, use Trojans after initial remote access, and a program called SurfCanyon. They prefer Chrome over IE but can use either. In the end, password protection is just cosmetic as they intercept everything from your keyboard on and back, letting you think you are oh so secure with VPNs and complex passwords, but they are laughing as they watch you type.

    • Maarten Zoutendijk

      Anyone to confirm this?

  • krl2minute

    Good article. Have definitely been considering to setup the vpn client on my home router, which should hide everything in my home.
    One question through: If I setup that vpn to cover my whole network, but I still sign into my regular google accounts or any other account for that matter. Shouldn’t the NSA be smart enough to figure out that I’m still me and collect my search results, emails and everything else, even though I’m behind a vpn?

    • Jared Howe

      Hi, thanks for writing. Our VPN assigns you the IP address of one of our network servers, so they would not be able to individually track anyone who uses that server no matter what they do. Even if they intercept your Google email, they still have to decrypt it, or else it’s simply gibberish. Until they find a way to decrypt messages (we believe it is decades in the future), everything you do online while using a VPN is protected.

      • krl2minute

        Hi Jared. Thanks for your quick reply. It’s very good to know that encryption combined with vpn will protect me.
        My concern however, is still creeping in the back of my mind. With the recent stories of large companies handing over information to NSA, I’m expecting that if I do a search on google, while being logged in as me, Google/NSA would still know what i searched and that I searched it. I remember reading that searches are encrypted like emails.
        Or do you see this also being protected by a privatewifi vpn?

        • Jared Howe

          Hi, just to clarify, if you are not signed into Google, the search source IP is the PRIVATE WiFi VPN server you are connected to.

          If you are signed into Google, then Google will be able to track you even if you are using a VPN.

          In addition, it is possible to remember a browser client using a cookie.
          Using a VPN does nothing to prevent tracking cookies. That’s the common
          way for websites to track visitors. If you are interested in removing/blocking cookies, we recommend installing Ghostery.

          The NSA will not be able to track you if you are using a VPN unless/until they can decrypt encrypted messages, which they cannot do yet (as far as we know).

          • krl2minute

            That’s in full alignment with my expectations. Thanks for clarifying and confirming.
            Good luck fighting the good fight for privacy.

  • joey

    I use a vpn ghostery & spoofig