If you are an avid reader of this blog, you most likely know what a Virtual Private Network (VPN) actually is: we explained what is a VPN (and why you should definitely get one) many times in the past, praising the privacy and data security benefits it brings to our internet activities, including - yet not limiting to - web surfing.
For those who didn't read these posts, let's quickly summarize the overall concept: a VPN service adds a layer of security to our online activities by routing our internet traffic through a military-grade encrypted tunnel hosted by an external, secure, and inaccessible network, thus preventing anyone from intercepting our packets and spying on us. Such behavior is especially useful when we are connecting from unknown (or unprotected) WIFI networks, as well as visiting unencrypted (non-HTTPS) websites... Which is also the point of this post. Do we still need this layer of protection in 2023? Do we still have to worry about insecure WIFI networks and non-HTTPS websites these days?
In this article, we'll try to answer to these questions and determine - according to our very personal considerations - whether buying a VPN service still makes sense nowadays.
The Internet has changed... yet it's still the Internet
Most VPN "detractors" are saying that the internet is a very different landscape nowadays than it was 10 or even five years ago, especially in terms of security: most - if not all - websites are now using the HTTPS protocol, meaning that the web traffic is now well-encrypted and can't be easily intercepted anymore.
According to recent research, 93% of all web page loads in Firefox in the US over 2022 are over HTTP; if we compare this result to 2013 data (25%) we can easily see the huge improvement of HTTPS adoptions during the latest years. A huge role in achieving such a result was played by Let's Encrypt, the nonprofit Certificate Authority (CA) which offers encryption certificates to websites for free since 2012, and today provides TLS capability to over 250 million websites; furthermore, the choice made by Google of prioritizing HTTPS sites in its search results pushed a huge amount of websites that care about their search engine optimization to make the transition.
An important role was played by modern browsers (mostly Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and MS Edge), thanks to their choice to update their UI to warn their users when they are connecting to non-HTTPS websites, and/or the frightening warnings that appear when trying to bypass the security warnings of expired or invalid TLS certificates.
It's also worth noting that the worldwide HTTPS adoption brings some relevant security benefits to insecure WIFI networks: we don't have to worry that much about submitting a form on an HTTPS-enabled website, even if we do that using a potentially insecure WIFI hotspot, as the underlying TLS encryption provided by the HTTPS channel will prevent any eavesdropper from getting those data.
All these assumptions are correct: all in all, we can definitely say that the new landscape has greatly improved the security of the average user - even without a VPN.
However, this hardly means that VPN services became unnecessary. Let's see some reasons why we should still consider using them.
In the latest years, all Internet users experienced a noticeable diminishment of online privacy: from hacking attempts and data logging incidents around the globe to the well-known NSA spying scandal in the US revealed by Edward Snowden, not to mention what happened in the EU with the Schrems and Schrems II sentences, which ultimately caused the fall of the EU-US Privacy Shield.
All in all, we can say it’s no secret that most governments - including EU countries and the US - are actively tracking and collecting data on online users. Furthermore, if we consider that internet traffic passes through our Internet Service Provider, we can easily see that even those ISPs are able to see all of our traffic - and could think of logging our browsing history. Let's make it clear, we are not talking about the actual data - only the hostnames and IP addresses: however, the risk of being spied on the list of the websites we are connecting to is still a big privacy concern.
VPN services fix this issue because, when we connect to them, our IP address is automatically switched with the remote server’s address: this behavior masks our real identity and creates a safe tunnel between you and the websites you visit, including both our source address and all the hostnames/IP addresses we might think of visiting.
Censorship and Geo-Restrictions
The IP-masking (and re-routing) feature of VPN services can be very useful if we want to defeat censorship (of governments) and/or geo-restrictions (or websites): a perfect example of that is Google Search, which is partially blocked in far eastern countries such as China, or streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Crunchyroll, which only offer their services (or some shows) in specific supported locations - often depending to specific copyrights issues.
VPN services allow us to easily bypass these limitations since they typically offer servers in several different countries, meaning that we can trick the blocking algorithm by making it think we are accessing from an allowed location. That's one of the main reasons why VPN services have become very popular in countries where there is heavy Internet censorship.
P2P, Streaming, and Social Networks
Another big advantage of VPN services is the fact that they allow us to mask the type and protocols of our internet traffic - which can be very useful if we use some Peer-to-Peer app, streaming services, or if we just want to connect to our social networks - not to mention file download, remote access, and many other use cases.
Most Internet Service Providers - especially for mobile plans - block or limit some of these traffic sources, meaning that we could be not allowed to access torrent sites or have some big limitations when trying to use them. The tunneling feature provided by most VPN services can easily get through these limitations, thus allowing us to do what we want with our bandwidth - while keeping all the security aspects intact, as the tunnel is encrypted as well.
Internet might be "better" in terms of end-user security these days, but a VPN service can still be very useful, especially if we plan to use P2P services (such as BitTorrent) and/or if we want to overcome the geo-restrictions applied by most streaming services. However, the most important benefit is still related to privacy, as it's a great way to prevent our government - as well as our ISP - from logging and/or spying on our web browsing history.