In the past week, internet security has shoved its way to the forefront of the public conversation, since Congress voted 215-205 to roll back consumer privacy regulations. On Tuesday, Trump signed the controversial bill into law, and now internet service providers are free to sell customers’ browsing data — meaning websites visited, apps used, and information exchanged.
People are understandably pissed, and cybersecurity connoisseurs have been mobilizing to spread the word on how individuals can protect themselves. The most common piece of advice? Use a VPN, or virtual private network, which acts as a midpoint between you and the web, encrypting all the data you send so that your browsing activity cannot be monitored by anyone.
VPNs are the most popular of the countermeasures because they are available to be downloaded and used right away. But VPNs are not a good solution for the average web user. Using a VPN means trusting all your data to a third party -- the VPN provider -- and it’s difficult for most users to evaluate who to trust.
The idea of an easier, more reliable, one-time way to beef up internet security seems like an attractive product in this context. What if you could just buy a box and plug it in at home? Does VPN hardware exist?
The answer is yes. Your router (the box that allows you to connect to WiFi and generally directs incoming and outgoing web traffic) can be updated or “flashed” with VPN firmware (software embedded in a piece of hardware, like digital camera systems), thus enabling the VPN as a blanket over all devices which attempt to access the internet using that particular router and network. Although such an update to a router can be done by a hardy, mechanically-confident individual, the risk is great, as an improperly flashed device can cease functioning altogether, and often loses it’s warranty in the process.
The drawbacks to having a VPN router are minimal.
Fortunately, there are options to outsource the job.
According to Joe Soria, co-founder and chief operating officer of router-securing company FlashRouters, a VPN router is the most robust and efficient way to go about beefing up your home internet security on a grand scale. “If you don’t integrate VPN on a router level, you can’t use VPN on a Playstation, Xbox, Roku, Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick,” he told The Outline over the phone.
These internet-connected entertainment devices are not set up to allow for the installation of VPN software. They can be hacked to do so, but Soria makes the point that this type of manual effort goes beyond what many are willing or able to do. “By doing it on the router, there’s no need for software on each device, and there’s no need for individual upgrades on each device when something changes,” he said. This one-time, wide-application means that any person using that router will automatically have their browsing activity protected by the chosen connected VPN service.
The drawbacks to having a VPN router are minimal. The most obvious one that comes to mind is in the case in which you want to access a website that doesn’t allow VPNs to access them (like Netflix, and some banking and government sites). But even this is easily avoidable by opting for multiple networks on a single router — one with a VPN service enabled, and another without. Soria thinks the only reason VPN routers aren’t more widely used is because many people don’t know about them. In the last week however, the calls in to the FlashRouters offices have doubled. “People are reactive, not proactive,” Soria told me in regards to the bump in worried web users. It’s an uptick that has been witnessed more and more consistently in recent years (the company has been around for six), as the concept of privacy on the internet has been exposed to be less of a sure thing.
Other, more well-known cybersecurity tools include VPN-enabled browser Opera, layered location-spoofing network Tor, and the more novel obfuscation site Internet Noise. However, each tool has its disadvantages whether undetected bugs, occasional compromise, or susceptibility to reverse engineering. Even the use of hardware and services provided by VPN companies does not mean a user’s data is completely impenetrable, as few VPNs are completely transparent with their methods of logging information about your browsing activity.
The best way to ensure privacy under the nose of an increasingly far-reaching government is to directly address the Panopticon itself.