Ask the Expert: Can a VPN Protect You From Government Surveillance?

Q: “I am really worried about the NSA surveillance of American citizens. I can’t believe this is even legal. More importantly, I’m wondering what I have to do to protect myself. If I use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi, will it protect me from government surveillance?”

A: The NSA (National Security Agency) story about how the government is spying on us is is indeed disturbing. What’s interesting about this story is that it’s not exactly new information. PRIVATE WiFi has been publishing stories about this stuff for years: how the government is asking for backdoor access to popular websites, how they are creating huge databases that store all the emails we send, and how data brokers hijack your information and sell it to the highest bidder, just to name a couple of our most popular articles.

What’s different now is that the public knows about it, and many are outraged. Perhaps this is the turning point when the general public begins to take their online security seriously.

But first, let’s look at what the government knows about you and how they got the information. Then I’ll discuss what you can do to protect yourself.

What the Government Knows About You

The NSA implemented a project called PRISM in 2007 that intercepted communications between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. This included users of some of the biggest online companies, including Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, and YouTube.

So what was the NSA monitoring? Almost everything: email, IM chats, videos, photos, stored data, VOIP (Internet phone calls), social network information, and video conferences. And recently, the government has also admitted to tracking and storing phone conversations.

But isn’t this illegal? Technically, no.

The U.S. government has said these projects did not specifically target any U.S. citizens indiscriminately, as this would potentially be an “unreasonable search” that is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. If you’re wondering how the government was able to get this private information, according to The Guardian who broke the PRISM story, the government did it without any company’s participation or knowledge. It’s possible that the government simply tapped into routers and compiled this information on their own.

Either way, it’s not really that hard to do.

How a VPN Can Protect You from Government Surveillance

The good news is that it’s not really that difficult to stop the government’s ability to spy on you online. It’s not like they are using some kind of advanced technology to do it. And let’s be honest: data brokers and cyberthieves have been doing the same thing for years.

It’s a good rule of thumb to assume that everything you do online can be viewed by others. So, it’s probably not a good idea not to let your Facebook friends know that you will be on vacation for two weeks and leaving your home unoccupied, or log into your online bank account while using an unsecured WiFi network at the airport.

Also, it’s a good idea to change your password to complex ones (a mixture of letters, numbers and special characters) and to change them every few months. Your security is only as good as your weakest password. You can also install a product called Ghostery on your Internet browsers which prevents websites from tracking you.

But you can take all of these precautions and still be vulnerable. Everything you search for on Google, every website you visit, every email you send to your friends can easily be snooped on by the NSA. Don’t want the government to know what you are doing? Then it’s time to get a VPN.

A VPN, or virtual private network, is software that secures and privatizes data across the Internet by building an “encrypted tunnel.” When you access the Internet, your data passes through this tunnel which protects it from anyone who tries to intercept it. A VPN like PRIVATE WiFi encrypts everything: your email, your web browsing history, your IMs, your VOIP, everything. Another benefit of using a VPN is that even if your data is intercepted, your identity is protected, since a VPN masks your IP address.

So now the secret’s out: the government is spying on you and has been for quite some time.

Maybe this confirms what you already thought or maybe this is news to you. Either way, you can protect yourself and your data from any kind of surveillance, government or otherwise, by using a VPN.