As more and more aspects of our daily lives intersect with the internet, it is important to be aware of just how easily your actions can be tracked, recorded, and potentially used against you.
Countries like Australia legally require ISPs to participate in mandatory data retention schemes which means that information like your IP address and details of your communications are available to government bodies. This is why I am so excited about the integration of a VPN service with Opera.
Having invested in a VPN service since my own ISP was legally compelled to track aspects of my internet usage, the idea that I can get much the same functionality for free has obvious appeal. A VPN is pretty much a commodity these days, so being able to remove that monthly cost just by switching browsers is a good deal.
Beyond just costs though, Opera has solved one of the biggest issues with VPNs by providing an easy way for non-technical users to know if they are being protected.
A VPN is, by design, transparent to the end user. Once a connection is established it is actually quite difficult to tell if your internet traffic is passing through a VPN. How do you establish a behaviour of secure browsing in people who are just interested in finding out what happened on Facebook in the last 10 minutes when verifying that a VPN is active requires jumping into another application or opening a website that will extract your public IP address?
Opera provides a very simple feedback loop to verify your online protection. There is now a very simple saying that anyone can remember:
If it’s blue, let it through.
If it’s yellow, your online actions are more likely to be tracked by governments agencies and internet organizations who may not have your best interests in mind.
Okay, that yellow bit is not as catchy as it could be, but you get the idea.
Of course, VPNs are no guarantee that your online actions are safe from prying eyes. SurfEasy, the VPN company bought by Opera, claims to be “a No Log network”, but how sure can anyone actually be that logs are not being kept somewhere? There is also some contention around the use of the term VPN, with Opera coming up with a new term “Browser VPN” to describe this new functionality:
In our case, we are coming with a new term: a browser VPN – and our goal is that all the network activity from the browser is actually routed via our secure proxy – unlike the usual proxies that only route the web traffic. So, it’s different than a system wide VPN but it’s also different than a proxy. Thus – a browser VPN. Currently WebRTC and plugins are still not routed that way – but we’re very open about this – we’ve just released this as a developer preview and planning to fix this in the coming updates.
Even still, I applaud Opera for integrating this new feature into their browser, if for no other reason than it sets a precedent that I hope other browser companies will follow in future. I look forward to the day when I can select from VPN or TOR routing directly from my stock browser installation.