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As the world ever shrinks due to the march of technology, the chances of someone being able to remain ‘under the radar’ from wider society are fairly slim. In order to be completely absent from any online presence you’d probably have to live as a cave hermit somewhere or join a monastery like Paro Taktsang in Bhutan, accessible only by mule track or on foot. And even they’ve probably got Netflix!
Many people have had relationships that end badly, then one party or another might end up ‘stalking’ their ex; perhaps by creating a false Facebook profile and friending up the unsuspecting former lover. Some forms of stalking or online harassment can end up being very disturbing, with legal consequences for those who persist in making other’s lives a misery. Others are just bombarded with junk mail daily, hundreds of messages spamming their inbox.
So how can we keep our lives free of those who we don’t want to communicate with us or find us – from a pesky online retailer who won’t stop sending emails, to a full-on stalking creep?
Hiding in plain sight
Aside from the obvious blocking techniques on social media, if your stalker is determined to find you, and has some technical knowledge of the internet, you’re going to have to take extra precautions. One of these is to use an Urban VPN, which will work equally well in a busy city center or out in any internet connected remote location.
The crucial protective aspect of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is that it places an encrypted, third-party server in between the VPN user and their internet service provider (ISP). In a scenario where a VPN is not used, a person’s home or office network connects via the modem router in their building to their chosen ISP. The ISP in turn looks up the target website or online service desired by the user, then makes the connection. However, the ISP betrays the user’s geographic location with an internet protocol address (IP), which can be located by internet hackers to street level. Furthermore, that ISP also keeps a log of exactly which websites their customer visited, the length and timing of each session, device used, and a host of other information that can help identify and socio-economically categorize an individual. Most worryingly, there is even a way of finding a person’s phone number from their iCloud email address or vice versa, as outlined in the linked article.
The VPN however places their encrypted server, both anonymizing the person accessing the internet and ‘cloaking’ their location by using a server located elsewhere in the world.
This anonymity and location obscurity can provide several advantages for a user’s online access. Let’s look at a couple of the more popular features and benefits of VPNs:
From bottle to throttle
So there they are in their shared apartment, three young professionals. One is a video editor, the other a games designer and the cleverest of the three is (of course) a devastatingly handsome copywriter. They all work from home and stream movies in the evening, so the data consumption from their internet connection gobbles up gigabytes at a rate faster than Ernest Hemingway downed Mojitos. Many ISPs identify and locate heavy data users, especially those on cheaper domestic or residential tariffs, and impose a ‘fair usage policy’. This entails slowing down or ‘throttling’ heavy data users to a rate so slow that their connection becomes unusable. Therefore, those customers are forced to upgrade to a faster data usage contract costing more money.
But if those three people had installed a VPN, either onto their router, or via a browser extension on each connected device, the ISP could not locate their whereabouts nor their customer account identity, thereby removing the ISP’s ability to throttle that connection.
Being wary of Wi-Fi
A VPN is also a great tool to stay safe online if ever you’re away from home and connecting to public Wi-Fi networks. Everyone has gone to a shopping mall or coffee shop and logged onto the free Wi-Fi network provided. But cyber criminals create ‘phantom’ Wi-Fi hotspots in such places. You sit down, unknowingly log on to the phantom network, check your email and the next thing you know (or in fact you probably don’t) is that your device has spyware installed – your online banking, social media and communications are all compromised by untraceable cyber criminals.
But using a VPN to log on to public Wi-Fi prevents any data theft or viral infection, because all reputable VPN providers’ servers have state of the art malware detection. If your machine was sent any form of malware installation, VPN software would immediately disconnect the device from the dodgy network before any harm could be done.
Home and away – shopping and surfing
Not least, using a VPN can use its dynamic location facility to circumvent geographic restrictions on streaming content. Imagine you’re a US citizen on vacation in the UK. If you want to catch up on your favorite US TV show via Netflix, you’d almost certainly be blocked from accessing the platform. But logging onto the internet via a VPN server located in the US immediately gets you connected. You can stream shows to your heart’s content.
Furthermore, when you’re shopping online for travel tickets or accommodation, many websites detect your location by IP address- if the algorithms of the retailer site determine you’re in a ‘wealthy’ area, the price goes up. All you need is to access the site from a VPN server in a country like Peru or Mexico (not known for their wealthy citizens) – and watch those prices come on down.
In summary, whether you’re a small business trading via an e-commerce website, or a regular citizen wanting to stay undetected online from a troublesome ex-partner, or save some money when online shopping, a VPN is an essential part of anyone’s online survival kit.