Are VPN services legal?

It’s clear that VPNs are becoming increasingly popular at a rate of knots, so we figured maybe it was time to take a step back, and look at the legality of these services.

While VPNs have historically conjured up images of a hoodie-wearing hacker at the local coffee shop, evading authorities while on the move with his or her laptop, the truth is most VPN users do not fit this stereotype. In fact, VPNs are commonly employed for corporate use, allowing employees to access resources when away from the office (working from home springs to mind).

Whenever we use the internet, a digital trail of cookie crumbs is left behind. The ISP can certainly see and track a user online, and know which websites have been visited, or trace other internet activities.

There are some protective security measures in place, such as SSL, for occasions when a user visits a secure website and needs to enter their credit card or other financial information – in order to keep such sensitive data hidden from the ISP. However, generally speaking, using the internet without a VPN certainly leaves the user’s activities less than private, and indeed fairly public and exposed.

So it’s no wonder that so many folks are turning to the best VPN providers out there to keep their online activity hidden from their ISP (or other parties). A VPN service cloaks the user’s identity by sending encrypted data to another server first, one which is sometimes located outside the user’s home country, making it much more difficult to track and find the user.

Waving the ban stick

In fact, VPNs work so well that the services have caused a handful of countries to take a hard line against VPN usage.

The countries that ban VPN usage, with potential prison time for offenders, include:

  • Belarus
  • China
  • Iraq
  • Oman
  • Turkey
  • United Arab Emirates

Additionally, the following countries restrict VPNs as part of overall internet censorship, and limit their availability to a short list of approved VPN services:

  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • Russia
  • Turkmenistan

Finally, Saudi Arabia is a special case, as using a VPN is legal, but authorities have blocked over 400,000 websites. Previously, Saudi Arabia had blocked VoIP services such as Skype and WhatsApp, which in turn supported the Saudi Arabian telecommunication firms’ traditionally high prices on phone calls.

This made it difficult for Saudis to communicate beyond the borders of their country – although some folks tried to get round the block using a VPN. However, that’s no longer necessary, because in a recent development last month, the VoIP ban was lifted as the new crown prince wishes to foster business in the country.

So, these exceptions aside, for those of us who live anywhere else, using a VPN is 100% completely legal. And with multiple governments across the globe becoming increasingly interested in tracking online activity, there has been a surge in demand for the security (data encryption) and privacy that a VPN provides.

A VPN is also useful to get around geographic restrictions (geo-blocking), and to avoid censorship, as well as generally promoting the free flow of ideas and information which is effectively the very heartbeat of the internet.

Criminal enterprise

What a VPN shouldn’t be used for is a licence to engage in criminal activity, not just from a moral standpoint, but also due to the fact that nobody is completely anonymous when online – even when using a VPN service.

Should you break the law while using a VPN, do not count on the provider maintaining your anonymity, because then the company would effectively become your ‘partner in crime’. As we saw only earlier this week, the FBI brought in a cyber-stalker with some of the evidence against the man provided by a VPN service.

Many VPN providers will declare that they keep ‘no logs’ at all on user activities, but the reality is that the vast majority will keep at least some kind of basic information (albeit very little), as this is often necessary for running aspects of the service like, for example, monitoring how many devices are connected (as VPNs often have limits in this respect).

The type of logs, and time period they are kept for, will vary a great deal from service to service, so it’s always a good idea to find a VPN firm’s privacy policy on the website (you might have to hunt for it), and read it carefully to see the exact details of any data which is logged.

For example, Hotspot Shield’s policy (a VPN run by AnchorFree) states that it will “protect ourselves or others from fraudulent, abusive, or unlawful uses or activity” (as shown in the above image).

While it isn’t hard to imagine the kind of illegal activities that would cause a VPN to turn over your data to the authorities, the list would certainly include:

  • Child pornography
  • Fraud
  • Illegal downloading and streaming
  • Hacking
  • Theft

Engaging in any of these activities will (and should) attract the attention of the authorities. Checking the small print of a VPN will inevitably reveal that it will respond to lawful requests for information. In other words, if the company gets a subpeona from law enforcement, it will most certainly comply, as any business must abide by the laws of the country that it’s based in.

Privacy protection

However, always remember that some VPNs will protect your privacy better than others. One of the main things to look for here is when combing through the privacy policy, make sure that there’s a ‘no log’ policy which clearly states that no record of an individual user’s web history or activity is kept, so there can be nothing to hand over to any third-party in this respect.

Another strategy VPN providers use to promote anonymity is a shared IP address, meaning that several users all share a single IP address, so nobody can figure out which of the users went where online. Finally, when it comes to paying for these VPN services, while a credit card is convenient, it is hardly anonymous, so some services accept cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin) as payment – which gives you a far better level of anonymity.

Overall, with the exception of the handful of countries listed above, VPNs are totally legal. They are a useful tool that allows citizens to keep their online activity private, for students to connect to schools or university campuses online, and for businesses to maintain secure access to online services for remote-working staff members.

In short, VPNs are highly useful services when it comes to keeping the internet private, and surfing data away from the prying eyes of ISPs or governments.

Jonas P. DeMuro

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.