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Why I’m using a VPN…and why YOU should, too

Filed under: General, News — Charlie Summers @ 5:53 pm

As yet another added monthly expense that, like most folks in the world right now I can’t really afford in this economy, I have purchased and am now using a VPN - Virtual Private Network. It’s a fancy name for an end-to-end encrypted connection to another machine somewhere else on the network. As I connect to my server right now, the logs in my server show me connecting from an IP in London, England…a trip I assure you I am only making virtually, not actually.

Why in the world would I want to connect to my own server from England when I have a perfectly good connection through Verizon aDSL? It’s actually because I have a connection through Verizon that I made the decision to connect through a VPN. Because Verizon is monitoring my connection and my datastream. And if you have your Internet connection through any of the “big five,” your provider is monitoring your connection, too. It’s in the name of combating “piracy,” but it is in reality all about the money - yours, and how to separate it from you.

It has been well documented that the entertainment industry, in the guise of industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA, are not particularly interested in the rights of artists and creators. Instead, they are interested in the fortunes of the multinational corporations who are interested in taking as much of your money in as many ways as possible. They have pushed their greed into really stupid areas, saying things like if you rip a CD you purchased into your MP3 player you are committing piracy…if you convert a DVD that you purchased into storable/playable files for your set-top box, you are committing piracy. If you legally copy streamed music from Pandora or other licensed sites on the Net and store them on your computer or MP3 player for future enjoyment, you are committing piracy. Sometimes I think the industry won’t be happy until there is a meter surgically attached to your eyes and ears, charging your bank account for every time you see or hear any of “their” product.

And the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are somewhat dependent on the entertainment industry; Comcast is part of that industry directly, Verizon sells television and Video On Demand (VOD), etc…the Internet access part is a small part of their business, and something they would frankly prefer not get in the way of the bandwidth they want to use to sell you things (research “net neutrality” to educate yourself on this very important issue). And it helps them (not you) if you install their software, where all of your searches run through proxies they control and can directly monitor to build a profile on you they can then sell to advertisers. So your Internet access provider is not on your side on this…they’d rather you didn’t use someone else’s legal and licensed website, but rather the one they provide and for which they can bill.

So it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that when the entertainment industry got their head handed to them on the badly-written SOPA bill, they decided to bypass the congresscritters they thought they paid for but who fled from them when faced with the facts and the revolt of constituents, and instead deal directly with the providers who deliver the “last mile” of the Internet to your door. They figured they could better lie and control the ISPs than elected officials who, inconvenient though it is, sometimes have to pay attention to their constituents. And like SOPA, they are implementing their conspiracy with the ISPs in the worst, most privacy-invading method possible. They all pretend it’s about preventing piracy, while implementing a system that not just allows, but requires, they monitor everything you do online. They call this the, “six-strikes” system.

And like I said, they are implementing it the worst way possible from the consumer’s standpoint; they are allowing a third party to monitor your actions, the same third party that allowed the entertainment industry to sue grandmothers without Internet access.

MarkMonitor, that third-party that monitors your web traffic to “determine” if you are downloading “illegal” (not currently against criminal law, but rather a civil matter - this whole use of terms like “legal,” “theft,” “piracy,” etc. is generally used to obfuscate the issue instead of providing clarity) content. Ignoring the extremely high probability this system will generate outrageous numbers of false-positives (how many grandmothers without Internet access did the RIAA/MPAA sue when their “solution” was filing bulk lawsuits?), consider what MarkMonitor does - according to their webpage, their system, “combats the loss of revenue, brand reputation and consumer trust that occur when someone else exploits your brand for their own gain.”

Think about that…this company is the one that leaps into action to invoke a public relations machine when someone posts, “Brand XYZ sucks…their product is dangerous!” So exactly what is to stop them from monitoring your datastream while looking for “illegal” content and using that data to attack the ISP customer posting negative things about some product?

But this goes deeper…while the ISPs, who let’s face it do not want net neutrality (seriously, web-search this) since they want to sell their customers “premium content” and throttle anything they aren’t cashing-in on, claim to be “common carriers,” they can use this datastream monitoring to build a profile of their customers. From web searches to advertisements clicked upon, these “utilities” can build a profile of you that is terrifying in its privacy implications. And if they are going to watch for “illegal” content, what exactly is to stop them from attempting to be a “SuperGoogle” and know everything there is to know about you? (Regular readers to this blog know how I feel about the “Big G” monitoring my movements around the Web…)

Worried yet? How about this; if MarkMonitor “fingerprints” entertainment industry product, what’s to stop them from providing a strike against you should you go to Pandora and listen to a licensed music stream, or Hulu and watch a licensed television re-run? Again, check out the numerous false-positives the entertainment industry already sued; how much more can they make with threats and intimidation to other innocents with this new system?

And something else to consider; while the agreement allegedly has “consumer-protection features,” it also includes provisions for your ISP to provide your user data directly to the Entertainment Industry groups:

The Participating ISP will, however, continue to track and report the number of ISP Notices the Participating ISP receives for that Subscriber’s account, so that information is available to a Content Owner Representative if it elects to initiate a copyright infringement action against that Subscriber.

Two guesses what that, “initiate a copyright infringement action” means? Yep, lawsuit. So your ISP through MarkMonitor will be reporting you to the Entertainment Industry groups, even if it’s a false-positive as I suspect most of the reports will be.

So if you use BitTorrent to download and share something like Pioneer One, a show you are encouraged to copy and share by the creators, and MarkMonitor decides it’s really Lord of the Rings XXII, it’ll be reported and you’ll be on the end of a vicious lawsuit, or more accurately a pay-up-or-else demand letter used to extort money from you. Innocence and guilt mean nothing to these sleezeball organizations and their lawyers, only the bucks matter. If they can coerce those dollars from terrified innocents, so much the better.

But, the proponents say, there is a provision for an appeal if you are innocent. Of course, you have to pay $35 to appeal to arbitration, and the arbitrators are contracted by the Entertainment Industry which puts your chance at a “fair” hearing to practically null, and this still doesn’t stop your ISP from providing your information to the Entertainment Industry lobbying groups for future “copyright infringement action” regardless of the outcome of the “mediation.”

Yet my main issue is the whole idea of your ISP monitoring you and your Internet use…this is why I am running through an encrypted VPN to points outside the United States. I simply don’t want my ISP eavesdropping on my private conversations with other computer systems and users. I’m not downloading whatever insipid juvenile film is currently in theaters, but I don’t want Verizon to know I’m pulling an episode of radio’s Captain Midnight from a website, or searching how to burn a DVD, researching a fix to an electronic device I own, or chatting with others about nostalgic television. It’s just none of their d*mned business!

One of the things I constantly hear as I write these pieces on privacy-on-the-Net is that I am paranoid; if I have nothing to hide, why does this stuff concern me? The line I usually use to combat this perception is a joke; “Just because you aren’t paranoid doesn’t mean everyone really isn’t out to get you!” But there’s a serious answer to this as well…just because I have nothing to hide doesn’t mean I exactly want everyone knowing everything about me, either. Sometimes I use the example of sanitary products…just because there’s nothing to be embarrassed about doesn’t mean you want anyone else to know what brands of products you purchase.

So now you say to me “if you don’t like your provider, find another one…it’s the American Way!” But let’s face it, when it comes to affordable “high-speed” Internet access (something the United States is woefully behind most of the rest of the developed world in having, BTW), most places in the country have only one or two choices; in my area, it’s Verizon or Comcast, both of which are expensive for the speeds offered based on the rest of the developed world and both of which are part of the “alliance” that is monitoring our Internet connections. So this whole “free-market” argument falls flat on its face…you don’t have the luxury of dropping your provider in many instances, and in most others you’re stuck between providers who both participate in this extortion scheme. You’re completely stuck having some third-party monitor your communications without warrant or permission.

What I can’t figure out is how the ISPs are going to continue to proclaim themselves “common carriers” when they are effectively monitoring and controlling the dataflow through the pipe. This is the literal equivalent of the telephone company listening to every telephone call they route without a warrant, listening for someone to allegedly commit some civil infraction or another, and then punishing them or more accurately their neighbor since they screwed-up the recordkeeping - and again all of this without governmental oversight or involvement. Seems kinda creepy, but there it is. I am sincerely hoping someday to be part of a class-action lawsuit about this (assuming the Supreme Court wises up and changes its consumer-unfriendly rulings, that is), but please let me be a named plaintiff, since as we all know they are the only ones who receive a dime from class actions…

OK, so let’s review; the Entertainment Industry, after having failed at changing the laws allowing it to take money from suspected “pirates” without any financial risk is now using the ISPs, who in many ways are tied to that same industry for future profits (who owns NBC again?) to allow a third-party to monitor your Internet datastream for…pretty much anything they want since there’s no legal restriction for them to limit it to anything, and there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. Except encrypt your datastream so they can’t capture and decrypt it in real-time to find out what you’re searching for, what companies you purchase from, and what advertisements you click.

That’s why I’ve purchased a VPN, and am using it for pretty much everything - I haven’t made so much as a web search without bouncing off some foreign machine, let alone listen to RadioOnceMore or stream a live event. I really can’t afford some spurious lawsuit because I uploaded an episode of SummersTime to this blog, and MarkMonitor decided erroneously it was actually the new motion picture Harry Potter, Lord of the Ringlets, so I’m using a VPN for practically everything I do. That way, I can be certain any “strike” I receive is a bogus one, designed more to intimidate me than to actually stop anyone from pirating anything. The company I chose for both price and service is Private Internet Access, and after a few weeks of excellent service I decided to join their affiliate program…if you purchase a month or more from them after clicking on the ad banner displayed on some of these pages, we get a small affiliate fee to help maintain the webpages, mailing lists, and podcasts. But feel free to check around; web searches will not only give you a great idea what’s out there, but should show you that some of the most advertised and expensive VPN companies also maintain logs of your usage, making them pretty useless for protecting your privacy. (One of the reasons I chose them: Private Internet Access doesn’t maintain logs. According to a spokesman, “We absolutely do not maintain any VPN logs of any kind. We utilize shared IP addresses rather than dynamic or static IPs, so it is not possible to match a user to an external IP.” Now that’s privacy. And their rates are some of the best in the industry, too.)

No matter what company you decide to go with, though, do it quickly…before your ISP begins using your own Internet usage against you. Current suggestions are this insipid scheme begins around the middle of February.

Oh, so you know, there are some side-benefits to the use of a VPN; for example, I can pop up in Canada and stream Primeval New World without needing my friends there (waves to you-know-who-you-are!) to record it and send me a copy. Not that I’d actually want to, understand, considering my review of the show, but I can if I want. I can (and have) suddenly appeared in England and gained access to all the BBC stuff that I can’t see when I’m visiting from a U.S. IP address. I can appear in Romania and…um…ok, haven’t found any particular advantage to that yet, but who knows? Is it “legal” to circumvent geographical boundaries to view television programs which are locked-out to citizens of the United States? Who knows. I’d bet if I wasn’t using a VPN with encryption, though, the MPAA/RIAA would consider me a “pirate” just for watching a show…

Another major advantage to a VPN is using it on a laptop, tablet, or even phone when connecting through free WiFi hotspots (which may begin to disappear, BTW, once the “six-strikes” nonsense begins…commercial accounts will also be receiving these “strikes,” so your coffee shop might be less interested in allowing you to share its WiFi if a customer is downloading copyrighted content, or MarkMonitor screws up the IP and blames the shop incorrectly). There are always privacy concerns in situations like that, especially when connecting to non-secure web servers (the ones without “https://” in the beginning); using a VPN, everything is encrypted between your computer and the VPN provider’s target machine, so no one at the hot-spot can eavesdrop on anything - not your email, not your web browsing, not anything. Finally, a reasonable expectation of privacy in hotels, airports, coffee shops, even grocery stores.

So VPNs are rapidly becoming vital to use; not just to prevent someone grabbing your banking password, but now to prevent your own ISP from “narcing” on you if a friend of your daughter emails her an MP3 to listen to.

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