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Explained: What is VPN, now being targeted by the Govt? What should you know before using one?

In a stark warning to virtual private network (VPN) service providers, the government Wednesday asked them to adhere to the cybersecurity rules released by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) or wrap up operations in the country.

Written by Chetan Nayak , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: May 20, 2022 2:34:37 pm
It is what the name suggests -- a private network that is virtually created when you surf the Web. (Pixabay/Representational)

The government issued a stark warning to virtual private network (VPN) service providers on Wednesday (May 18): adhere to the cybersecurity rules released by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) or wrap up operations in the country.

“If you’re a VPN that wants to hide and be anonymous about those who use VPNs and you don’t want to go by these rules, then if you want to pull out (from the country), frankly, that is the only opportunity you will have. You will have to pull out,” Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrashekhar said.

CERT-In is a wing of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Among its directives issued on April 26 is one that requires VPN service providers to maintain, for five years or longer, details such as validated names of customers, the period for which they hired the service, the IP addresses allotted to them, their email addresses, time stamps, etc.

The government wants these details to fight cybercrime. On the other hand, privacy is the main selling points of VPN services.

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What is a VPN?

It is what the name suggests — a private network that is virtually created when you surf the Web. Every time you switch on your VPN connection, a secure channel is created, which acts as an intermediary between your device and the destination webpage. Your data is then sent to an external VPN server, which then connects you to your destination.

However, when the VPN server does this, your IP address, which is the online equivalent of a user-specific postal code, is changed — and thus websites are unable to accurately track your location. This private network promotes online safety and enhances your overall privacy on the Web.

How does VPN work?

Imagine you are driving somewhere from your home in your car. The number plate of your car is your IP address. Everyone on the road can see where you are headed, and can use the number plate to track your car back to you. This is like browsing online in the normal way — without a VPN.

Using this same analogy, when you use a VPN, you are able to take a different, hidden road that leads to the same destination, but no one can see you on it, and the hidden road changes your number plate for the journey and then again when you come back home.

Essentially then, no one knows where you’ve been, how, and for how long.

But what’s the point?

Privacy: That’s the obvious advantage. Without a VPN connection, websites can see your IP address, and use it to accurately identify your identity and location. It’s like walking around with your name, address, age, and a full list of where you have been over the past week printed on the back of your shirt — or perhaps handing over your business card with your address on it to every person you meet.

Safety: A VPN would prevent everyone from the government to cyber criminals to track you easily. Using a VPN can delink your online activity from your IP address. A VPN will also protect your Internet traffic, keeping it encrypted the whole time.

Location spoofing: Another common reason why people use VPNs is to get around georestrictions. To take a simple example, certain films or other content may not be available in your region — Netflix, for instance, knows every time you connect from your home region, and which movie should not be on the menu.

But if you were to use a VPN, Netflix could think you’re visiting the website from another region, one where the said movie is not banned. Platforms such as Netflix are aware of this, and have been cracking down on users who try to circumvent these geolocation blockers.

Getting around online censorship: Many countries block access to various websites, which you cannot visit if you’re from those countries. A VPN allows you to bypass such restrictions.

Free access to the Web is an important element of the freedom of speech and expression. Journalists and activists often use VPNs to access platforms that would otherwise be inaccessible, and communicate without government restrictions.

What if the secrecy is misused?

That is what governments argue. Restrictions of the kind imposed by India can deter cybercriminals and prevent a range of crimes such as identity theft, online fraud, cyberbullying, stalking, etc. As our lives are increasingly lived online, we are more vulnerable to these crimes, especially those who do not understand how the Internet works and the risks it can pose.

Are there any practical problems?

Your Internet could slow down. Since VPNs require your traffic to be routed via a VPN server, it could take longer to reach your destination website. Also, VPN users are also often actively denied access to certain websites and services.

It is important to remember that a VPN cannot help if you download a malicious file, are tricked into entering your personal details on a scam website, or if you’re logged in with an identifiable account like a Google account that can be traced back to you irrespective of your IP address.

Also, remember that the VPN service knows which websites you are visiting. It is important, therefore, to trust your provider. Paid VPN services like NordVPN or Surfshark VPN will charge you a subscription, will offer extra features, support for multiple devices, and better speeds. Free VPN apps and services will often restrict you to lower speeds and may misuse or sell your data.

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