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Debunking Major VPN Myths for U.S. Consumers

Findings from the Pew Research Center reveal many Americans deeply value their online privacy, but only a relative few have employed “advanced measures” – like a VPN service – to increase their protection. While there are many reasons for this lack of use, misunderstandings about VPN abilities and operations prevent many potential U.S. consumers from exploring VPN options.

In this article, we’ll analyze the Pew research to show how Americans value their online privacy and also disprove the most common myths that may be preventing them from using a VPN service.

By the Numbers: Americans and Online Privacy

Pew Research based the majority of the analysis on a survey conducted between Aug. 5, 2014, and Sept. 2, 2014, among a sample of 498 adults ages 18 or older. Here are some of the key findings:

Regarding privacy in general:

  • 93% thought “being in control of who can get information about you,” is important.
  • 90% thought “controlling what information is collected about you,” is important.

VPN Myths may be causing hesitancy in U.S. Internet customers

Source: Pew research Center Report on Americans’ Attitudes About Privacy, Security and Surveillance

Regarding the demand for online privacy:

  • 65% of American adults believe there are not adequate limits on the telephone and internet data that the government collects.
  • 55% of Americans support the idea of online anonymity for certain activities.

Regarding steps taken to enhance their online privacy:

  • 91% had not made any changes to their internet or cellphone use to avoid having their activities tracked or noticed.
  • 9% say they have used a service that allows them to browse the web privately, such as a proxy server, Tor software, or a virtual [private] network.

What can we glean from these statistics? Most Americans want online privacy, but are not taking adequate steps to achieve it.

Busting Myths About VPNs and Online Privacy

Private browsing is the number 1 reason people around the globe use VPNs. In other countries, almost 4 out of 10 internet users employ a VPN or a proxy server. Just last year, Australian internet customers flocked to VPNs after its government enacted a series of privacy-threatening and content-blocking laws.

VPN Myths may be causing hesitancy in U.S. Internet customers

Source: The Global Web Index

Yet in the U.S., VPN use is not widespread even though online privacy is in major demand. To help potential users understand how a VPN can help, let’s bust some major myths about the service.

VPN Myth #1: They Are Too Expensive for Consumer-Level Users

VPN providers are facing a tough task in the U.S to attract customers. With a lack of competition in the broadband market, U.S. consumers pay more on average than any other country’s population for high-speed internet access. And it’s not blazing fast; cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, and Paris get much faster connections. Because of these cost and speed issues with regular ISPs, it’s no wonder many Americans refrain from adding VPN service on top of their regular internet access.

VPN Myth: the services are too costly

There is, however, competition in the VPN provider market, and this keeps subscription costs down. The top 10 VPNs for U.S. customers have starting monthly costs ranging from $4.84 to $19.99. As the demand for online privacy grows, more users will be willing to pay this small added cost to a monthly internet bill. Plus, there are several providers – such as CyberGhost – who provide free VPN services for subscribers.

VPN Myth #2: VPNs Don’t Work Because Internet Anonymity Is Impossible

Browsing anonymity may very well be impossible. As Eric Snowden has shown, the U.S. government’s ability to track someone’s online activity goes to the very roots of the internet’s structure. Targeted users will almost always leave a trail, no matter how hard they try to cover their tracks, and this includes VPN use.

For the general consumer, however, anonymity is unnecessary. What most customers want and what VPN services offer is a high level of privacy from the government and 3rd parties. The services mask an IP address and make it seem like a computer from somewhere else is browsing the internet. This allows you to browse privately without being tracked.

VPN Myth #3: VPN Providers Keep Logs that Destroy Privacy

Several news stories have painted the picture of VPN providers helping law enforcement catch one of their clients by providing details they said they didn’t collect. Many of these were high-profile targets with warrants out for their arrests. In reaction, many VPN providers have gone on marketing blitzes, advertising that they “do not log.”

VPN Myth: VPNs make you anonymous

The truth is most premium services have to keep some logs in order to provide customer service and troubleshoot problems. It’s the level of log detail and the length of time logs are kept that must be scrutinized. For those users who want top-level security, they should choose a service that keeps the bare minimum of logs and does not keep them for long.

VPN Myth #4: Tor Is Better than a VPN

While it has proven fallible, the Tor browser comes as close as any service to providing internet anonymity. Click here for a complete guide on how the browser works and its benefits.

Yet for a combination of privacy and performance, a trusted VPN network is the better choice. From downloading bit torrents to streaming HD video, a VPN network’s speed will beat the Tor browser.

VPN Myth #5: The Networks Cannot Be Trusted to Protect My Data

VPN network choices can be overwhelming. Besides the paid subscriptions, there are several free networks available. And VPN trust myths have developed because some of these free services have been called out for:

  • Sharing servers:
    While premium networks own their servers and routers, free services have been found to rent space on shared servers and use customers’ bandwidth. Both practices put your browsing privacy and/or personal data at risk.
  • Selling customer data to 3rd parties:
    While the service may be free to use, the company needs to make money somehow. One common way free VPN networks do so is by selling usage data to 3rd parties.

VPN myth: networks cannot protect your data

Yet again, the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” rings true. These problems may affect free VPN providers, but premium services are much more secure. Their privacy policies explicitly specify how they protect your data and prohibit selling it to 3rd parties. Plus, they have much more control over their server networks, so data can travel faster and with more safety.

One truth to this myth: unlike firewalls, VPNs do not protect users from malware, viruses, and other online threats. If you download infected content via a VPN, your system will end up infected as well.

VPN Myth #6: Connections Are Always Slow

Because of the added levels of encryption, VPN networks are at a speed disadvantage compared to regular internet connections. Also, they are often accessing servers half a world away, and data transfer speed sometimes takes hits as a result.

Yet improvements are being made. Premium VPN services limit the number of users per server making the VPN connection more reliable and speedy. They also offer hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of server locations. This reduces the need to contact a distant server and shortens the length data packets need to travel.

Conclusion: U.S. VPN Use Will Increase with Demand for Online Privacy

Since the trend is going upward in other countries, it’s logical to believe U.S. consumers will begin employing VPNs more often, too. While there is ready access to Netflix and other streaming content services, the demand for online privacy tools is rising because toleration for third-party tracking is lessening. According to another Pew research study, U.S. internet customers are increasingly worried about:

  • Online exposure leading to scams and hacks
  • Tracking methods that become “creepy” and “Orwellian”

At the same time, third-party data mining will only get more pervasive. Tracking and analytics have become crucial aspects of the $120-billion online advertising economy. Companies are already paying top dollar to discover a potential customer’s likes, habits, and interests, so they can tailor ads to them. And this demand has created an information war where trackers are trying to glean as much information from users as possible.

After cutting through some common misconceptions, it’s clear VPNs are effective tools against third-party tracking and “creepy” profiling. While they may not provide total anonymity and security, they can make browsing a more private, enjoyable experience for relatively little cost. And as aggressive tracking grows, VPN providers in the U.S. stand to gain more customers.

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About the Author

John Norris worked as a tech writer, journalist, and instructional designer before turning to tech blogging in 2013. While focusing on digital security and privacy issues, he is interested in any tech area that can enrich people's lives.

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