A cultural shift in the use of virtual private networks means that they are now being adopted by a wide range of people, and used for a greater variety of purposes than ever before. Historically, VPNs were solely the domain of big business. At the consumer level, they were considered an underground tactic to conceal users’ identity, often for the purposes of avoiding law enforcement.
Since then, a sharp increase in cybercrime and a rising global awareness of data privacy has moved VPN use into the mainstream.
This rise is highlighted in a study by Wombat, where 65% of respondents in the U.S. reported that they now use a VPN, while in the UK, 44% of respondents answered the same.
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What is behind the increase?
A significant factor behind the increase in VPN usage is a shift in people’s awareness of privacy and data security issues. As well as an increase in cybercrime, a recent string of high profile legislative changes has shone a spotlight on how our data is collected and used.
Statistics in the UK now show that over £190,000 a day is stolen from victims of cybercrime. Of those affected, more than a third had their social media accounts and emails hacked. The global picture is even more bleak, with cybercrime now estimated to cost the world $600 billion, showing a huge increase from $445 billion when the same analysis was carried out in 2014.
In a survey conducted by Gallup, Americans reported being more worried about becoming victims of cybercrime than conventional crime. The poll showed that having personal, financial or credit card information stolen by hackers was the top concern, along with identity theft.
The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act caused controversy when it was introduced in 2016, and with good reason. ‘The Snoopers Charter’ as it is nicknamed, gives the UK government and intelligence agencies the power to intercept and collect all forms of communication, as well as hack into smartphones, computers, and other devices.
The Act also requires all UK internet service providers (ISPs) to assist in intercepting, hacking and decrypting data, along with logging and storing the details of every website visited by individuals using their services for a full year.
While the law was implemented to protect national security, it served to highlight the potential threat to privacy faced by every citizen in the country.
A similarly disturbing change in legislation has also raised the profile of data privacy in the US. Rules set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), were repealed by Congress, effectively giving ISPs the power to sell their customers’ personal data. ISPs are now free to create marketing profiles based on their users’ browsing habits and sell their confidential information to advertisers, without prior consent.
So what exactly does a VPN do?
Virtual private networks have two main purposes; to protect users’ privacy, and enhance security. They do this by connecting you to the internet via the VPN provider’s servers rather than by direct connection. This has the benefit of hiding your IP address and means that your online activities cannot be tracked or traced back to your device, giving you the freedom to browse the web privately.
At the same time, a layer of encryption is added to your connection, which converts data into code, and prevents cybercriminals from intercepting it.
Who uses VPNs, and what do they use them for?
The vast majority of users are simply security-conscious individuals who value their data privacy. VPNs give them peace of mind that their information is safe from ISP tracking or snooping governments, as well as protecting them from cybercriminals. This is especially important for activities like online banking and shopping.
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Expats are another key group who make extensive use of VPNs. Many countries employ geo-blocks on content, such as BBC iPlayer being unavailable outside of the UK and geographical restrictions on other streaming services like Netflix. A VPN allows users to hide their new IP address and location, and substitute it with one from their country of origin, enabling them to view their usual online entertainment.
Digital nomads; location independent workers who only need their laptops and an internet connection to earn a living, often find themselves relying on unsecured public WiFi such as coffee shops, airports, and co-working spaces. A VPN allows them to secure their connection against spying, hacking, and malware, and may also be necessary to bypass content blocks based on the countries they are working from.
The future for VPNs
The rising use of virtual private networks is not showing any signs of slowing. Consumers are becoming more aware of how their data is being used, and insisting on higher standards of privacy, along with protection from cybercriminals.
Demand is set to stay strong for the foreseeable future. One source estimates that the worldwide VPN market will increase in value from $20.6 billion in 2018 to $35.73 billion by 2022. With an ever-expanding number of use cases, we can expect this trend to continue, and for VPNs to solidify their place in our everyday lives.