Some computer-related expressions are technical on an almost abstract level. That is not the case for VPN, which we will explain here.
The internet a vast network of computer servers interconnected. VPN is short for virtual private network and, unlike your home network, is just something found on the internet. Hence the word virtual. It is private because only you can access it.
Anyone can see your IP address
All devices (mobile phones, computers, tablets, etc.) connected to the internet have an IP address. It is a type of ID number assigned to your device by your internet service provider (ISP).
Just as you use your social security number in many contexts, the device IP address is recorded almost no matter what you do on the web. It happens, for example, every time you visit a website.
Therefore, your ISP has access to see which websites you have visited – and when you have visited them.
The internet never forgets
You do yourself a favor by remembering that the internet never forgets. Once something is stored on a server somewhere in the world, it can be impossible to delete completely – and to check if it has been deleted.
The same applies to your IP address and the information stored with it. Both your ISP, authorities, and others can follow just about all the traces you leave behind on the internet.
There are some rules as to how long some of the information may be stored, but in practice, it is impossible to check whether it is being observed.
You are not safe behind the screen
Basically, all internet traffic is unencrypted. It means that hackers and others can potentially capture information while being exchanged between servers and your device.
There might not be a firewall between your information and people with dishonest motives.
VPN provides security and anonymity
A VPN connection creates an extra layer between your device and the internet. Instead of it being your device’s IP address that gets registered, it is the IP address of the VPN server you are connected to. It means no one can gain insight into your internet activity because it cannot be traced back to you.
Furthermore, the information exchange is always secure, since it is encrypted between the VPN server and the servers on the internet. Thus, for example, hackers cannot get hold of them.
Finally, you are not subject to geographical restrictions with a VPN. For example, if you are connected to a server in the United States, the rest of the internet will appear to be physically located in the US
Now that you know a bit about how a VPN works, how it protects you and your privacy, we can delve more into who really has access to see what you’re doing online. It changes from one country to another – and let’s just say: Europe does not protect your privacy in this context.
How many eyes are watching?
Typically, countries are divided into three groups: 5 eyes, 9 eyes and 14 eyes with reference to how many countries are included in each group, and thus how many eyes information on internet behavior is shared with.
The five countries USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have the most comprehensive intelligence exchange agreement. It is not just about who watches bomb videos and buys large quantities of fertilizer, but also about the normal everyday use of the internet.
The authorities in the five countries have a wide framework for surveillance, and may, for example, ask an intelligence service from one of the other countries in the group to spy on named nationals.
Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway work closely on intelligence sharing with the five native countries. With that, we come up with nine eyes.
However, monitoring does not stop here. In addition to the nine countries, a further five countries cooperate with others to share primarily military intelligence. These are Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. This is how we come up with 14 countries that share information across borders.
Strong vs. relaxed privacy protection
The exposition above shows a little about how many countries your information can be shared with if you are not using a VPN. But it also reveals something important about the choice of VPN provider. If you really need to be anonymous, the provider most not store and disclose information about you.
As you know, companies are subject to the laws of the country they are registered in – and there are very different privacy rules. For example, if you choose a VPN provider based in the United States, you cannot remain anonymous because the company is legally required to store and possibly provide a lot of information about you.
On the other hand, if you choose a VPN provider based in a country where the legislation ensures that no logs that authorities and others can sniff are stored, you can sleep safely and anonymously at night.