Black Friday

VPN Use Booms in Response to Attacks on Online Privacy

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

April 20, 2017

A recent spike of interest by Australians in Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) reflects a growing trend. Internet users worldwide are becoming increasingly aware of the sustained attacks on their privacy carried out by their governments and the internet companies whose services they use every day. This has led to a boom in VPN use.

In the past, many might have trusted their governments to defend them against such rapacious attacks on their fundamental human rights. As is becoming increasingly obvious, however, governments the world over either have no interest in protecting their citizens, or are actively the primary threat when it comes to privacy.

In response to this, more and more internet users are taking responsibility for their own online privacy.

A VPN Spike in Australia

In October 2015 all Australian communications providers, such as telephone companies and Internet Service Providers, were required by law to collect and store metadata belonging to their customers. This data must be kept for two years, and includes large amounts of personal data.

Every phone call made, email and text message sent, and internet activity performed by everyone in Australia must be logged and stored.

As in the UK, the information collected is accessible without a warrant to a worryingly large range of government organizations. The list of authorized authorities can be further expanded by the Attorney-General at his or her discretion.

Although the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act came into force in 2015, telco companies were given until 13 April 2017 to install their metadata collection systems and bring them online.

VPN use booms

On 13 April Google saw a huge rise in searches for the term “VPN”.

Google’s statistics very closely mirrored our own, which measure visits to our 5 Best VPNs for Australia page.

Global Phenomenon

If properly configured, VPNs are one of the most effective means of protecting your privacy online. This has resulted in a big boost in their popularity, most notably due to large-scale press coverage of VPNs following recent events in the United States.

United States

At the beginning of this month President Trump and Congress in effect granted ISPs the green light to sell or share customers’ detailed web browsing histories and geo-location data with advertisers and partner companies. And worse.

Every single US internet user has been sold down the river by their own government. And they clearly know it.

United Kingdom

The Investigatory Powers Act (aka the Snooper’s Charter) came into force on 29 January 2017. Described by Edward Snowden as “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy,” the IPA provides the UK government with the legal framework to spy on every citizen’s telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and web browsing history.

It also grants the government wide powers to hack into computers, force companies to weaken the security of their encrypted products with backdoors, and imprison any whistleblower who attempts to warn customers that this has happened.

Furthermore, the information collected will be available to a ridiculously large number of government organizations.

“Extreme” hardly covers it. The UK government has granted itself the power to become the most repressive state in the so-called free world. Indeed, given the reach and technological sophistication of its Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) spying agency, the UK is now positioned to become the most repressive surveillance state anywhere in the world.

Interest in VPNs among UK internet users has been high for quite some time now. Notice the spike around 29 November 2016, when the IPA was given royal assent.

France

Ostensibly in response to a series of terrorist attacks, in 2015 France passed the Intelligence Act, which introduced alarming new surveillance laws. Internet and telecoms companies are now required to install “black boxes” designed to warn authorities about suspicious behavior.

These devices record pretty much everything internet users do online and store this data for a month. Metadata is kept for five years.

Interest from French users in VPNs spiked on 27 November 2016.

There does not seems to be a single cause for this spike, but the anniversary of the September 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings,  international interest in the UK’s snooper’s charter (which was given royal assent two days later) and the fact that emergency laws in France were up for renewal in December may all have contributed to a “perfect storm.”

VPN Use Worldwide

There is a clear global trend towards greater VPN use, with spikes of interest appearing whenever another privacy scare hits the headlines.

Interestingly, if perhaps not too surprisingly, privacy scares specific to one country generate increased interest in protecting privacy internationally.

The biggest rise in VPN searches comes from the Ivory Coast. It is hard to pin down specific reasons for this, although arrests and beatings of journalists are regularly reported.

Our VPN search statistics might be a little skewed by the fact that we are primarily an English-language website. The fact that the US rates up there with some of the most repressive regimes in the world is nevertheless striking.

Conclusion

As we can see from the charts, local privacy scares generate spikes of interest in VPNs. These spikes tend to die down quickly, but each time they happen, awareness of VPNs and other ways to protect privacy grows.

This has resulted in a steady (to the point it could be described as dramatic) rise of interest in VPNs and online privacy issues worldwide.

Ordinary people do not want their privacy invaded, be it by their government, their ISP, or by Google and its ilk. It is clear that the divide between ordinary people and governments that are supposed to represent their interests has never been greater.

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