A VPN (Virtual Private Network) service is a common yet effective tool to enable remote collaboration on sensitive files. But quite often, the public use of VPNs has come across controversial scrutiny. VPN services are used by most companies in India to secure their networks and digital assets from hackers. Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs suggested the Indian government ban VPN services in the country as per the report from MediaNama.
“VPN services are a threat to counter cyber threats and other nefarious activities. Due to the easy availability of VPN apps and tools, it allows the criminals to remain anonymous online,” the committee said.
According to the report, the committee has recommended permanently block VPN services across the country with the help of ISPs. The committee also wants the Ministry to take initiatives to strengthen the tracking and surveillance mechanisms.
Before we try to understand why the Parliamentary Standing Committee is demanding to take a harsh stand against VPN, let's delve into what is VPN and why is it needed?
What is VPN?
A Virtual Private Network is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a way to create a private network within a public internet connection. This virtual network is encrypted against any outside interference, protecting the privacy of the user. This ensures complete anonymity.
A VPN connection establishes a secure connection between you and the internet. Via the VPN, all your data traffic is routed through an encrypted virtual tunnel. This disguises your IP address when you use the internet, and as a result, it seems as if the user is located at some other location. In short, a VPN works like a filter that turns all your data into ‘gibberish’. Even if someone tries to get their hands on your data, it would be useless.
Why do we need a VPN?
VPN promotes privacy. It is used to maintain privacy in one's online operations. Using a VPN can prevent these possible threats to your internet activity-
1. Your browsing history is stored with an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Thus tracking your online activities ethically is possible through the IP address of your system. Since a VPN can successfully mask it, your search history and other online activities are hidden even from your ISP.
2. VPNs generate a fake IP address for a system. This feature can be used to trick the internet services into believing that the system is being operated in another region of the world. The main purpose of VPNs is to help prevent third parties from tracking your internet activities and stealing data.
3. VPNs can thus also give you access to banned services in a country. For instance, Google is banned in China but can be accessed through a VPN.
4. VPNs are also used by corporates for creating a closed network for their employees to work on. It allows remote employees to access corporate resources such as file servers that reside on the company’s internal network and require special authentication to use them. VPN also ensures that all of their web traffic is encrypted even when they use public Wi-Fi networks.
This is how the companies protect their crucial data and ensure protection against online threats.
Why is this VPN ban proposed?
> Just the way VPNs help internet users to protect their identity, they can be illicitly used by cybercriminals to avoid surveillance. Technological challenges posed by VPN services and Dark Web can bypass cyber security walls and allow criminals to remain anonymous online. This makes it difficult for law enforcement to trace them. The authorities then have to rely on much more extensive surveillance methods.
> Also, VPN can easily be downloaded by anyone, as many websites are providing such facilities in either their paid or free version. VPN services can even hide one’s online identity even on public Wi-Fi networks, allowing them to access blocked sites as well.
> A large number of free or cheap VPNs are now available online. Some of them are actually doing the exact opposite of what we expect from them. You might not know but they are collecting and exposing our data rather than hiding it. So in all, using a VPN doesn’t keep you entirely safe from intrusions.
> The committee said that the ministry must take initiatives to strengthen the tracking and surveillance mechanisms by further improving their technology. For this, they must put a check on the use of VPN and the Dark Web.
Who is likely to get affected?
Popular VPN services like Nord VPN, Express VPN, and Surfshark VPN give users anonymity on the internet and allow them to access banned websites. In India, VPNs were a rage when the popular mobile game PUBG was banned last year.
Most people use VPNs to watch anything from Netflix content free of cost, use Torrent to download movies or surf pornographic websites which are banned in India. In fact, India is said to have the highest adoption rate of VPNs.
The committee claims that banning VPN will be in the interest of the public. But we are all aware of the Pegasus attack where over 300 Indian mobile telephone numbers were targeted by the spyware. It’s important to note that the Personal Data Protection Bill in India does not include any surveillance reforms related to such attacks. So after Government’s vague response to the Pegasus issue, people may not trust the VPN ban decision.
Since VPNs provide greater privacy than even a secured Wi-Fi hotspot, they are used by companies to allow their employees to work remotely. They can log in to the company network from anywhere and keep company data secure through the encrypted network offered by VPN. So, a ban on VPNs can throw remote working in India into jeopardy.
If the ban is imposed, will it be foolproof?
More than the process of blocking VPNs in the country, the task of ensuring that the ban is in place is much more important. Similar to how individuals found ways to bypass bans on apps like PUBG Mobile, it’s likely that it could be followed for VPNs as well. So the ban might be a success if only strict actions are taken against those who try to sell cracked versions of VPN online. Yet, it’s hard to say if VPNs will still remain vulnerable to cybercriminals.
What are some alternatives to VPN?
There are other alternative tools that can evade the use of VPN.
1. Smart DNS
A Smart DNS (Domain Name Server) works in a similar way as a VPN. It can disguise your location, allowing you access to restricted websites. The smart DNS reroutes a request through proxy servers that are located in other countries where the websites are supported.
One main advantage of a Smart DNS is that it only needs to reroute information about your location, instead of routing your entire web traffic as in the case of VPNs. Thus, it provides higher internet speed. One such example of a Smart DNS is Getflix, but there are also other options.
Tor not only protects people's identity online but also allows them to bypass any sort of internet blockage. Instead of connecting directly to a website, it bounces around between multiple nodes or computers on its network. Thus it makes it difficult to trace your identity.
Alternatives to Tor that use similar technology are Freenet, Yandex, and 12P Browser.