In the market for a VPN app?

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As a business person, you know that accessing the public Wi-Fi network in an airport lounge, coffee shop, or other location can be risky. Public networks aren’t very secure – or, well, private – and it could be easy for others to intercept your confidential business or personal data. But there are times when every executive has to be out and about. So what can you do to keep your mobile data private and secure? Some people use Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps to shield traffic from their mobile devices from prying eyes on public networks. Before you download a VPN app, consider the benefits – and the risks. The FTC has answers to the questions business people are asking.

How do VPN apps work? When you use a VPN app, data sent from your phone – for example, your browsing data or the apps you’re using – is first routed through servers controlled by the VPN provider. A VPN app can make traffic from your phone to a website appear to come from the VPN’s servers. Some VPN apps also encrypt the data sent between your phone and the VPN server. So let’s say you’re using a public Wi-Fi network that isn’t secure – for example, a network that allows anyone to use it, even if they don’t have a password. Other people on the same network can see your traffic. But when you use a VPN app that encrypts the data, anyone monitoring your Wi-Fi network connection only sees gibberish – even if the particular site you’re visiting doesn’t itself employ encryption.

Why do some people use a VPN app? Some VPN apps promise to keep your information secure on public networks. Others also claim to keep your information private from advertisers and other third parties. And because VPN apps route your traffic through another network, they can make it appear as if your traffic is coming from somewhere else. This is similar to how your company might use a VPN to allow employees to use their work computers as if they were on the company’s network, even while they’re on the road.

What are some privacy and data security concerns about using a VPN app? First, when you use a VPN app, you’re giving the app permission to intercept all of your internet traffic. You shouldn’t grant that permission lightly. Also, a group of technical researchers who studied almost 300 VPN apps found potential privacy and security risks with some VPN apps. According to the study, for example, some VPN apps didn’t use encryption. Some asked for sensitive – and possibly unexpected – privileges. And some shared data with third parties for purposes like serving ads or analyzing the data to see how people are using a particular site or service.

Given these findings and the considerable trust you place in a VPN app once you give it access to your online traffic, here are some things to consider before you download a VPN app.

  • Research the VPN app before you use it. Trusting a VPN with potentially all of your traffic isn’t much different from allowing a third party to stand over your shoulder as you use the computer on your desk at the office. That’s why it’s important to learn as much about a VPN app as you can before you download it. Read outside reviews from sources you respect. You can also look at screenshots, the app’s description, its content rating, and user reviews, and can do some online research on the developer – but don’t just take the app’s word for it. The fact that an app promises security or privacy doesn’t necessarily make it trustworthy.
  • Carefully review the permissions the app requests. Apps will present the permissions they request on their app store page, during installation, or at the time they use the permission. It’s useful information that tells you what types of data the app will access on your device in addition to your internet traffic. If an app requests particularly sensitive permissions – reading your text messages, for example – consider whether the permission makes sense given the app’s purpose and whether you trust the app developer with that access.
  • Not all VPN apps actually encrypt your information. Some VPN apps use protocols that don’t encrypt your traffic, or encrypt only some of it. Outside reviews from sources you respect might provide more information about a particular app’s use of encryption.
  • A VPN app generally isn’t going to make you entirely anonymous. A VPN app will typically obscure the content of your traffic from your internet service provider or public Wi-Fi provider, but it doesn’t render you anonymous. It just shifts trust from those networks to the VPN app provider. In addition, sites you visit may be able to determine that you’re using a VPN app, and can still use any identifying information you directly share with them (for example, filling out a form with your email address) to track you.
  • VPN apps may share your information with third parties. Many VPN apps are free because they sell advertising within the app, or because they share your information with (or redirect your traffic through) third parties. If you’re using a VPN app to keep your traffic private, make sure you review the app’s terms and conditions and its privacy policy to determine if it shares information with third parties like advertisers, and if so, what information it shares.

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