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Will a VPN hide me from the Snoopers’ Charter?

Will a VPN hide me from the Snoopers’ Charter?

The short answer is that it'll definitely help

Much has been written about the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, or Snoopers’ Charter, but despite warnings from digital rights groups to get the bill withdrawn, it went into force on 30 December 2016.

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According to the Open Rights Group, the bill is “a threat to the British public’s right to privacy”. It forces ISPs to keep track of the websites you visit, officially sanctions and legalises the hacking of individuals’ personal devices by the government and security agencies.

So what if you disagree with this outrageous erosion of your right to online privacy? Is there a way of thwarting the powers that be and remaining under the radar? The answer is yes, in part, and you need to use a VPN.

How does a VPN protect me from the Snoopers’ Charter?

You’ll probably have heard this term before. It stands for virtual private network and it’s used, most commonly, to “geo-shift” a computer’s online location in order to access online services that might otherwise be blocked. In this way it’s possible to gain access to BBC iPlayer from abroad, or US Netflix from the UK, for example.

I’d also recommend a VPN for anyone who regularly uses Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes and hotels since the connections are rarely encrypted end-to-end and can leave you, your usernames and passwords, and your personal data vulnerable to Wi-Fi eavesdroppers.

But a VPN can also be used to effectively cloak your online activity from being accessed by the government via the Snoopers’ Charter.

How do VPNs do this? You first have to understand how a VPN works. Effectively a VPN does two jobs:

  1. First, it encrypts all data starting at your laptop or phone so data can’t be intercepted and simply read on the way to or through the hotspot.
  2. Second, it changes or “shifts” the location of your IP address to the VPN’s servers at the other end of the connection so your traffic appears to be coming from somewhere else and some other computer.

Does this mean the government can simply shift focus to the VPN provider, forcing them to give up your information instead? Technically, yes, if they’re located in the UK.

However, there’s a huge number of companies offering VPN services and many are based abroad, which prevents or makes it more difficult for the UK government to gain access to their data, and many have a policy of not keeping logs of your internet activities, making it impossible for them to surrender that information anyway.

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This is the type of VPN you should be looking for if you’re concerned about online privacy. Also look for VPNs that cover all your various devices: plenty now also offer smartphone and tablet apps, so there’s no excuse for leaving yourself exposed on other devices.

What a VPN can’t do

It’s important to recognise that a VPN is only part of the privacy picture here. Remember that the Snoopers’ Charter effectively legalises the government hacking of smartphones, laptops and other devices; a VPN can’t protect you against the police and security services gaining your information in that way.

However, by using a VPN you can circumvent the most nefarious and controversial part of the bill, which gives the police and security services ready access to the records kept by your ISP of your internet activities. And that means if you care about your privacy, you need to use one – now.

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