I don’t have much in common with Chinese pro-democracy activists, but as I sat earlier this week at the EuroAirport just outside Basel, waiting for a delayed flight to London, I decided to circumvent some onerous restrictions that had been placed upon me against my will.
Granted, I was only battling against the terms and conditions of Sky Sports rather than a repressive Communist regime, but the software I used to accomplish it was the same: I switched on a VPN, or virtual private network, and was thus able to use my phone to watch the England cricket team get battered by New Zealand. You’re not usually allowed to do that while abroad, but by routing your traffic through servers located in another country, VPNs make it possible. Indeed, their ability to anonymize, to avoid governmental tracking and to access geo-restricted content is making them increasingly popular, with around 27 per cent of global internet users having taken the plunge thus far.
In truth, using a VPN to watch Ian Bell score a small number of runs (again) is a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; these are powerful tools, originally used by businesses to operate secure networks over large distances. But they do the job of faking your location very well – so well, in fact, that the war against their use is being stepped up. A few weeks ago, Netflix changed its terms and conditions to threaten bans on customers found to be using them – but in truth, that’s something of a reluctant battle; Netflix would probably rather see geo-restrictions abolished altogether, but it’s beholden to the licensing arrangements of the companies that supply the content. Meanwhile, in the world of state censorship, the Chinese authorities have been targeting and blocking some of the biggest VPNs that enable citizens to see web content deemed inappropriate. Indeed, one security researcher has offered proof that the Chinese government was behind a recent denial-of-service attack on Github, a site hosting projects designed to circumvent blocks in China.
This seems to be a conflict with code at its heart, and with VPNs representing freedom, liberty and all that is good. But it’s not quite that simple. The demand for VPNs is growing so fast that there’s evidently money to be made, and countless services are currently bidding for our custom. This sounds like a perfectly laudable example of capitalism in action, but when choosing a VPN service, you’re granting it all manner of powers. All your traffic (some of which you might hope is private) is routed through its servers, your privacy placed in its hands. It’s common to see some free VPNs bombarding users with pop-up adverts that it injects into web pages to make some cash, but another, Hola, has come up with a more startling business model. To avoid geo-blocks, it routes users’ web traffic through the internet connections of anyone using its service for free. As a consequence, someone accessing murky content in a distant land could do so through your Hola connection. Not only that, but Hola sells access to your bandwidth at up to $20 per gigabyte. And, say security experts, it could leave your computer exposed to random attacks from people who’d effectively paid Hola for the privilege. VPNs are clever pieces of software but be careful which ones you place your trust in – particularly if they’re free. The dubious privilege of watching an England middle-order collapse can come at a cost.