In the business and corporate sphere, virtual private networks (VPNs) are nothing new. These web-driven pipes serve the purpose of allowing employees to gain secure access to company networks using a raft of devices, and from locations far from the firm’s HQ.
Now, in a new development, a pair of VPNs tailored for use by ordinary consumers is bringing the advantages of virtual private networks to the world and his wife.
TunnelBear and Hotspot Shield won’t cost you a penny to download or use, but both deliver secure virtual tunnels that cloak the IP addresses of computers and other devices connected to the networks. Individuals who don’t want their internet browsing habits disclosed to third parties will be in seventh heaven with these two programs.
VPNs a godsend for privacy-conscious consumers
In an age when privacy appears to be on its last legs, TunnelBear and Hotspot Shield both put the little man back in the driving seat in the battle against corporate and government snooping on the web.
Since that arch-whistleblower Edward Snowden put the cat among the pigeons with his revelations, the public has begun at last to understand that America’s NSA has untold fingers in the internet pie. This agency is snooping like mad, gathering huge amounts of data about the public’s search habits, emails, and posts on a wide range of social networking sites. Whether you use Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, or Twitter, you can bet that the NSA can easily get to see what you are doing and saying if it decides to take an interest in you. But, to be fair, using a virtual private network is an effective way to dodge snoopers of all hues.
Ryan Dochuck, a co-founder of TunnelBear, acknowledges the contribution of Edward Snowden, saying of the NSA whistleblower that he has “done a great job of driving awareness of the type of data being collected and the relationships through which this consumer data gets accessed.” Since Snowden’s revelations appeared on the news, TunnelBear has experienced a doubling of usage of its VPN service.
Users of TunnelBear can choose between a free version and a monthly subscription service. The free service allows users to surf the web in privacy up to a limit of five hundred megabytes of data per month. If you need more than that, the subscription service, which offers users an unlimited amount of data, will cost you just five bucks per month.
Dochuck is keen to educate his customers on the sharp practices engaged in by the likes of Facebook and Google: New users of TunnelBear get a free download of a film called Terms and Conditions May Apply, which lifts the lid on the privacy-busting clauses hidden in the small print of many internet companies’ user agreements. While the surge of interest in web privacy is great for business, Dochuck is adamant he and his team “want to help Internet citizens gain more control over the information that is being shared about them online.”
It was during the Middle East uprisings, in the so-called Arab Spring, that Hotspot Shield first achieved global notability. Protesters anxious to dodge internet censorship by their countries’ governments got into the habit of using the fledgling VPN service. Now, following Snowden’s leaks, millions of ordinary Americans, as well as many others all over the world, have decided that Hotspot Shield is the way to keep one step ahead of snoopers.
David Gorodyansky is the co-founder and CEO of Anchorfree, the developer of Hotspot Shield, and he concedes that “concerns about privacy, which have been amplified by recent news reports, are certainly driving growth of VPNs.”
On average, downloads of Hotspot Shield are currently topping two hundred thousand per day of the version for desktops and laptops, and forty five thousand of the version for mobile devices. But, for Gorodyansky, the sky is the limit – he confidently predicts that Hotspot Shield’s user base will continue to expand at a rate of well over a million new users per week.
As with TunnelBear, Hotspot Shield has two tiers of account. The free version of the VPN forces users to see constant banner ads (and occasionally pop-ups, as well). Going ad-free, with the additional benefit of protection against malware, will set you back thirty bucks a year.
Other ways to beat web tracking
While the best protection from web snoopers is afforded by VPN services like TunnelBear and Hotspot Shield, there are a number of other ways that internet users can reduce the extent to which they are tracked and spied upon when using the web. For example, there are powerful plugins such as DoNotTrackMe and Cocoon, which can be added to one’s internet browser at the touch of a button. These plugins give consumers the ability to dodge the cookies that tech behemoths use to track visitors to web pages, in a bid to snag useful data about where web users go when they are online, as well as what their interests are, and the persons they interact with.
The future of privacy on the web
The bottom line in the post-Snowden era is that the public is beginning to worry quite a bit about privacy issues with social networking and other websites. That concern is illustrated by the massive uptick in the use of VPN services.
Nevertheless, playing cat and mouse with web giants becomes tedious after a while. What the public is beginning to demand is a more transparent web, with snooping slashed back from current levels. Lawrence Pingreen, who works for Gartner as an analyst of the security industry, reckons that the playing field is wide open for new companies to emerge offering a more transparent, less sly approach to dealing with customers. “All of the information gathered from a user ought to be customizable,” asserts Pingreen, adding that “the consumer should be given the option to opt out.” Pingreen argues that companies “lose trust” when they mine users for information and then hand the data over to third parties.