Are VPNs illegal?

There are people who want you to think VPNs are illegal. As a security professional, this is a point of frustration for me. If anyone ever asks, “are VPNs illegal?” the answer most certainly is no. VPNs are a necessity, and protected by various constitutional amendments. Yes, more than one.

Why VPNs are a necessity

Are VPNs illegal
This diagram comes from a VPN provider but the principle holds for any VPN. A VPN isn’t illegal just because it can be used for illegal activity. VPNs have plenty of legitimate use as well.

Whenever you use a computer for work and you connect back to work remotely, you are probably using a VPN. The United States government itself uses VPNs extensively. I can’t go into details for obvious reasons, but in 2012 I co-wrote a policy that cut out a lot of unnecessary red tape and expense in certain circumstances where military agencies can prove VPNs are in place and functioning.

What a VPN does is put a wrapper of sorts over your computer’s network traffic. It’s like the difference between putting a letter in an envelope or sending a postcard. Your doctor’s office or your bank don’t send your personal financial or medical information on a postcard. Other people will see it before it gets to you. And that’s the intent and purpose of a VPN.

If you’re reading this on your work computer and you’re working from home, you may very well be using a VPN even if you don’t realize it.

But do you need VPNs when computer traffic is already encrypted?

More and more computer network traffic is encrypted as time goes on. But you can never guarantee that absolutely all of it is. And that little bit of leakage can be dangerous.

Consider a situation I’ve discussed before in regards to tracking devices. There’s a little plaza close to my house. My favorite bakery is there. So is my favorite Thai food joint. There’s also a store there that you have to be 18 to enter. And there’s a dentist. Not my dentist, but a dentist.

If someone drives past that plaza, sees my car parked there, and recognizes it, any number of things can go through their mind. All they know is that my car is parked there. They could conclude that I’m getting Thai food. They could conclude I’m at the dentist. On the other extreme, they could conclude I’m in that shop buying something because I’m having an illicit affair.

You can infer a lot from a little bit of information. Sometimes it’s frighteningly accurate, but sometimes it’s all wrong. Twitter thinks I’m in the market for a Buick. It’s inferences.

Now I’m not sure I care if people who used to know me are judging me based on seeing my car parked near a shop they don’t approve of. It says more about them than it does me. But my computer can easily leak similar information, and algorithms could be making decisions about how to treat me based on the same thing.

So when I’m doing anything work-related outside the office, I make sure I’m using a VPN or have equivalent protections in place. I’ve reverse engineered trade secrets based on inferences. My inferences may not have been 100% correct, but they were close enough that my version worked.

BuT vPnS cAn Be UsEd To Do IlLeGaL tHiNgS!

Of course VPNs can be used to do illegal things. That doesn’t mean VPNs are illegal, or should be illegal. Cars can be used to rob banks. They aren’t illegal. Someone who lives near me drives an orange Lamborghini. That car is literally designed to drive at unsafe and illegal speeds. Owning and driving it isn’t illegal though. If you’re not using your car to do illegal things, it doesn’t matter that it’s capable of doing illegal things. That whole debate was settled sometime around 1902.

People made the same argument against the VCR. Had the VCR’s opponents won, they would have lost out on a tremendous revenue source.

And do I need to bring up guns? Because the argument for protecting VPNs is far, far stronger than the argument to protect guns. I can think of two times in my adult life that I’ve felt the need to have a gun. Some days I need a VPN twice before I’ve finished my first cup of coffee.

Computers are a bit dicier because they are a little bit harder to understand than cars, but I hope as the generations who grew up around computers and understand them continue to gain influence, the idea of extending the same protections to computers that we extend to cars and guns becomes less controversial. Almost anything can be used to do illegal things. One of the core principles of classical liberalism is that you ban the illegal activity, not tools that can have both legal and illegal uses. You give your citizens the benefit of the doubt until they prove they’ve abused it.

What Constitutional amendments protect VPNs?

VPNs, and encryption in general, are a second amendment issue. There is a common school of thought that guns are necessary to protect citizens from government overreach.

VPNs serve precisely that function, but even moreso. They also protect you from corporate overreach. Back when the late, great Consumerist blog did its annual worst company in America polls, it was never obvious who was going to win any given year. But it was always a given that the major Internet service providers would all be in the running. This group of companies, with the worst track record of consumer hostility in the country, are positioned to track everything you do online. And there’s little to no limit to what they can do with that information.

It’s also a fourth amendment issue. If the government thinks I’m making bombs or drugs in my basement, they have to convince a judge they have a valid reason to believe that, and get the judge to sign a warrant. Then they can come look. A VPN is no different than putting up walls around your computer.

Is it illegal to use a VPN to violate terms of service?

One reason companies want people to think VPNs are illegal is because people sometimes use them to appear to be in a different geographic region. This can allow you to watch different shows on Netflix, or watch your local sports team in spite of local blackouts.

We’ve seen this before. Piracy was absolutely rampant around 2002. And then a couple of different companies had a radical idea: Sell access to digital content. What they found was that people would gladly pay for digital content if the price and selection were reasonable.

Now, after a few years, greed is setting in. Prices and selection are becoming less reasonable. So people are paying for VPNs so they can watch from countries where the selection is more reasonable to them. Or so they can pirate content that isn’t available to them anymore.

The story of Gaslight Square in St. Louis comes to mind. Gaslight Square was a popular destination in St. Louis in the early 1960s. A number of things contributed to it changing from an international attraction to a slum in less than a decade, but greed was a major factor.

But the streaming industry doesn’t listen to me. You won’t get a visit from law enforcement if you use a VPN to watch a TV show that’s no longer available in the United States because someone got greedy. If they catch you doing it, they could cancel your account. More likely what they’ll do is block your access until you turn off your VPN.

And in a properly functioning capitalist society, cat-and-mouse games eventually find equilibrium. Remove the incentive for people to use VPNs to stream, and VPNs will recede mostly back to corporate use. Stay greedy, and the VPN industry will continue to grow to solve the problem.

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One thought on “Are VPNs illegal?

  • April 27, 2021 at 8:20 am

    Great post. One other benefit I’ve found from using a VPN is that I can buy certain goods cheaper if I buy them from a different IP address. For instance, by using a Chilean IP address, I’ve bought domestic plane tickets within Chile for 1/3 the price versus if I had bought them from a US IP address. I’ve also heard you can buy certain digital products for significantly cheaper if you move your IP address to a highly inflationary country like Argentina (I haven’t verified this myself). I’m very curious – which VPN, in your opinion, is the best for personal use? I’ve seen ads from a number of presumably popular VPN services, but I’ve heard none of them are very good at not keeping records of users.

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