The majority of your search history is probably not all that sensitive; perhaps you Googled where to buy tickets for the latest Hunger Games flick or how to get rid of belly fat. Search queries like these don’t really require the utmost confidentiality, but consider the other topics that you search.
Thinking your search anonymous, you may have Googled highly sensitive material that you believed would be no one’s business but your own. The disquieting truth is that, in the last year, several websites have made users’ entire Google search histories public and associated them with an IP address.
In other words, anyone who knows your IP address can look up your complete search traffic on one of these sites. Fortunately, there is a way to shield yourself from this gross invasion of privacy: a VPN (virtual private network). Below, we discuss the details of this problem and explain how a VPN can help protect your privacy.
Your Search History at the Fingertips of the Internet
At least one website has recently made web users’ search histories public and accessible to the entire Internet, which includes Google’s web crawlers. You might be surprised to learn that the website is not a historical haven for hackers or rogue in any way; it’s actually a widely used and legitimate website-tracking service.
The site tracks URLs and Google search queries, and it pairs this information with the user’s IP address on a page. Google then indexes these pages, making them available to search by IP address to connect specific addresses with certain sites or search queries.
Sensitive Information Linked Directly to You
While news reports of the privacy breach will not identify the offending website due to security concerns, they have published screen shots of the kind of sensitive information revealed in search histories. Here are a few examples of queries that were published online and linked to individuals’ IP addresses:
- “How to resist the temptation of homosexuality”
- “How to complete suicide in bathtub”
- “How long to wait to be tested for herpes”
- “Signs of infection after abortion”
While your search history might not contain queries quite as scandalous as those, it’s probably safe to say that there are some things that you’d rather keep to yourself. On the other hand, you might be wondering what the big deal is. The search traffic is associated only with an IP address, not a name and physical address. And, after all, who actually knows your IP address?
You’d be surprised. IP addresses are laughably easy to figure out, especially if you’ve interacted with someone online in the past. For example, potentially anyone to whom you’ve ever sent an email knows your IP address.
What Is a VPN?
Obviously, the offending site needs to be taken down, but relying on site shutdowns to protect your privacy is like playing an interminable game of cyber Whac-A-Mole. Just when you eliminate one, another pops up somewhere else. Also remember that other sites may and probably do have the same information; they just haven’t gone public with it…yet.
A VPN is a tool that hides your IP address from tracking sites and others when you connect to the Internet with it. Think of a VPN as a tunnel that protects the source and identity of everything and everyone who goes in and out by encrypting data. Using a VPN when you surf the web makes it impossible for hackers or tracking sites to trace your browsing activity to you.
Surf Anonymously with a VPN
A VPN is an affordable and relatively simple way to keep your Internet browsing anonymous. VPNs first came about in the business world as a way to connect different company departments without the expense of leasing dedicated phone lines. Corporations had proprietary data that needed protection, and one benefit of VPNs was that no one, including cyber spies and ISPs, could view the internal traffic of the data tunnel.
Today, the most common use of VPN is to ensure privacy and security at Wi-Fi hotspots and even at home. At many Wi-Fi hotspots, you can access the Internet without a password 24 hours a day, regardless of whether the hosting entity is open for business. Of course, this creates security risks easily averted with a VPN. Likewise, using a VPN at home has myriad benefits, such as:
- Making your IP address invisible to websites and snoops
- Thwarting hackers from intercepting your data over Wi-Fi
- Circumventing censorship efforts by your ISP (a VPN unblocks websites like Pirate Bay, Facebook, and YouTube as well as geo-restricted sites like BBC iPlayer)
- Protecting against malware (many VPNs have built-in safeguards against spam, phishing, etc.)
- Encrypting your data and shopping information with HTTPS
- Potentially saving money on mobile device data (some VPNs come with data compression technology that allows users to download up to twice the data at the same bandwidth expense)
Setting up a VPN
The most basic form of a VPN exists at the application level, normally within an Internet browser. Known as incognito or private mode, these VPNs are compatible with multiple browsers and operating systems. However, they only protect the information in the associated browser. If you open up a page with another browser or use an email program outside of the protected browser, this kind of VPN would not protect your data.
The good news is that more effective VPNs are either free or very cheap. Free VPNs tend to be based on open-source VPN code, which means that all web traffic that passes through your PC is encrypted — all browsers, all email applications, etc. Most iOS, Mac OS X, and Windows devices are supported by free VPNs, although some are not available for Android yet. If you download a VPN for free, keep in mind that you will likely see advertisements within the VPN.
One of the most appealing things about the Internet is that you have the freedom to research sensitive material anonymously. The problem is, this freedom only really exists if you surf with a VPN in place. A VPN encrypts your data and ensures that your search queries and browser history are truly anonymous.