NEW TECH: Here’s how new consumer-grade VPNs could return privacy to a social norm

Companies have long used Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, as Internet-enabled tunnels designed to let workers securely access corporate networks from computing devices in remote locations.

Related: Snowden on surveillance.

Now two VPNs designed for consumer use are gaining rapid adoption. AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear are both free, easy-to-use services. Each provides a secure digital tunnel that hides your computing device’s IP address and hinders Internet companies from tracking your Web browsing patterns.

Consumers who desire a return to privacy as a social norm are flocking to Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear in no small part due to Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing.

Public understanding has begun to gel around the notion that the National Security Agency is able to snoop on individuals to the degree it does largely because of the rich data being collected and correlated by search, e-mail and social media companies, led by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter.

“Edward Snowden 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,” says Ryan Dochuck, TunnelBear’s co-founder.

TunnelBear has seen usage double in the last six months, corresponding with Snowden’s ongoing series of revelations. The free version enables you to do up to 500 megabytes worth of protected Web surfing per month. Usage is tallied much like smartphone data plans, so that translates into light web browsing, says Dochuck. For just $5 a month, you can do unlimited browsing protected by TunnelBear.

As a special promotion, TunnelBear is giving away complimentary screenings of the new documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, to all paid subscribers. The film examines how Google, Facebook and others use densely worded policy statements and user agreements to grab ownership to just about all aspects of our activities.


“We want to help Internet citizens gain more control over the information that is being shared about them online,” says Dochuck. “With advertisers, social networks, data brokers and governments continuing to vacuum up personal information, we predict a much larger market in the future.”

Hotspot Shield gained global notoriety during the Arab Spring uprisings; protesters used the free VPN service to evade government online censors. Since June, Snowden’s whistleblowing has helped drive millions of privacy-minded citizens in North America and other regions to the free VPN.

“Concerns about privacy, which have been amplified by recent news reports, are certainly driving growth of VPNs, ” says AnchorFree CEO and co-founder David Gorodyansky.

In October, individuals downloaded an average of 200,000 copies per day of Hotspot Shield for desktop computers, and 45,000 daily copies of the mobile version. Gorodyansky’s anticipates adding a million new VPN users every four or five days “for the foreseeable future.”

Users of the free version of Hotspot Shield must put up with banner advertising and occasional pop-up ads. For a mere $30 a year, you can use the faster paid version, which is bereft of advertising and includes malware protection.

VPNs and browser plugins like Cocoon and DoNotTrackMe empower consumers to deflect the tracking cookies that the tech giants use to harvest rich data about where you go, what you’re interested in and who you associate with online. GPS data from mobile devices is being increasingly added to this mix.

This tracking information gets correlated to the personal information and preferences we disclose at websites for shopping, travel, health, jobs and, of course, on Facebook and other social networks. Employers, insurance companies and attorneys can use this information unfairly against you. And Snowden revealed that the government’s top spy agency has been regularly tapping in.

The rising visibility and usage of VPNs suggests an erosion of trust in social media and online advertising business models as we’ve come to accept them. At the end of the day, Edward Snowden may prove to be the catalyst for consumers rejecting relentless online tracking — and insisting on a return to privacy as a social norm.

There would be plenty of room for Web companies with fresh business models built around transparent tracking of consumers on a limited basis, says Lawrence Pingree, security industry analyst at Gartner.

“All of the information gathered from a user ought to be customizable and the consumer should be given the option to opt out,” says Pingree, security industry analyst at Gartner. “”You lose trust when one party takes all of the information, without giving anything back, and then discloses something to others, without asking permission.”


Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.

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