MY TAKE: How consumer-grade VPNs are enabling individuals to do DIY security

By Byron V. Acohido

Historically, consumers have had to rely on self-discipline to protect themselves online.

Related: Privacy war: Apple vs. Facebook.

I’ve written this countless times: keep your antivirus updated, click judiciously, practice good password hygiene. Then about 10 years ago, consumer-grade virtual private networks, or VPNs, came along, providing a pretty nifty little tool that any individual could use to deflect invasive online tracking.

Consumer-grade VPNs have steadily gained a large following. And over the past two to three years, adoption has climbed steeply.

It only recently dawned on me that this rise in popularity of VPNs is probably directly related to the chaotic social unrest, not to mention the global health crisis, we’ve all endured over the past few years.

We’ve become accustomed to hunkering down. As part of this mindset, more consumers are subscribing to a personal VPN service which they use to shield themselves from disinformation sweeps and to protect themselves from Covid 19-related hacks and scams.

At the start of this year, I was invited to fill a seat on the advisory board of Surfshark, a fast-growing consumer VPN based in the British Virgin Islands. I agreed to give the company feedback about how they’re executing their business model. I also saw this as an opportunity to get better informed about consumer security concerns.

I’ve since discovered that there’s a heck of a lot going on in the B2C VPN space. I’ve come to understand how consumer-grade VPNs are playing a material role in empowering consumers to take back control of their online privacy. More than that, the leading suppliers of consumer-grade VPNs, Surfshark among them, are encouraging consumers to use personal VPNs as a tangible tool they can wield to proactively protect themselves in an environment of endless attack vectors. Here’s what’s unfolding:

Avoiding government snoops

Companies have long used enterprise-grade VPNs to enable their employees to securely tunnel into corporate networks from remote locations. Then about 10 years ago along came consumer-grade VPNs. I first encountered consumer VPNs back in 2013, when I interviewed the founders of Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear for this news story.

This was in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA snooping, and consumer outrage was palpable. Many folks were shocked to learn that government agencies routinely tapped into the behavioral data being collected, correlated and monetized by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter.

Hotspot, TunnelBear and other new services made digital tunnels readily accessible to consumers thus enabling them to hide their IP address from the tech giants’ – and Uncle Sam’s — snooping. Both of these VPNs are still thriving today, and they’ve been joined by a dozen or so prominent suppliers of consumer VPN services. By the time Surfshark launched in 2018, the consumer-grade VPN suppliers were generating north of $20 billion a year in subscription fees and the field of top suppliers had swelled to include the likes of NordVPN, ExpressVPN and Cyber Ghost.

The top B2C VPNs proved to be very clever and effective at differentiating themselves from one another and very successful at marketing their services. Collectively, they’ve nurtured an entire new field of affiliate marketing partners: an army of bloggers and YouTubers who allude to VPNs as part of their blogs and videos.

Meanwhile, consumers took to using personal VPNs to stay anonymous online while accessing news sites and social networks; they also leveraged personal VPNs to access geo-locked content on Netflix and other popular streaming services. Additionally, criminal rings, idealogues and nation state-backed operatives took to using VPNs to mask their online communiques.

DIY security

Today consumers routinely use VPNs to make purchases and do online banking, send email, and SMS chat; VPNs provide a sense of assurance that they’re protecting personal information from getting into unwanted hands, and stopping the tech giants and advertisers from collecting and monetizing their digital footprints.

A Malwarebytes study estimates that about 36 percent of Americans use VPNs today, up significantly from an estimated 1.5 percent ten years ago. VPN subscriptions surge every time there’s a Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal or a headline-grabbing identity theft caper, like the unemployment payments hacks that swept across the U.S. and Canada in the first few months of the global pandemic.

These patterns highlight the potential for more and more consumers to recognize personal VPNs for what they truly are: a low-cost tool that empowers the user to very directly preserve online privacy while at the same time taking proactive steps to improve personal security. VPNs give the individual user direct control over the unique data stream transmitting data between their laptop or smartphone and the Internet. The leading B2C VPNs all recognize this and have begun promoting the use of personal VPNs as, essentially, a DIY security tool.

Surfshark Alert is a representative example of this trend. This add-on service notifies the subscriber if and when his or her personal information gets leaked or is spotted in caches of stolen data circulating in the Dark Net. Surfshark has other security-related services under development. “Our aspiration and our vision of why we exist is to humanize additional security and make it accessible to all,” Regimantas Urbanas, Surfshark’s chief marketing officer, told me.

Surfshark is not alone. Other B2C VPNs are logically promoting and developing a wide array of security-related functionalities. And a sure sign that VPNs may yet be a killer consumer app – from a security perspective – is the fact that some of the established antivirus vendors, like Kaspersky, Symantec and Trend Micro, have begun offering consumer-grade VPN services.

It makes a ton of sense for consumers to take more of a hands-on, DIY approach to their personal security and not wait around for private industry and government to drive much-needed systemic improvements. Consumer-grade VPNs provide an inexpensive and powerful way for individuals to get fully engaged in defending home base.

It’s going to be interesting to see where the consumer-grade VPN market goes from here. I’ll keep watch and keep reporting.

Acohido

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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