I recently read the privacy statement for Prequel, a popular app that adds whimsical filters to your selfies. The policy is 6,374 words long, but easy enough to parse. Among other permissions, the app states that by agreeing to their policy, when you interact with the app via social media, you allow the company to access all kinds of valuable information, such as your name, user ID, email address, photos, and videos, gender, and date of birth (if it’s listed on your social media profile), your list of friends and their contact information, people who you follow and who follow you, as well as all the posts and your interactions you make with posts. That’s a lot of information you’re giving up about yourself and your friends, all so you can post a cartoon version of yourself on Instagram. Is it worth it?
Before downloading an app, take these three steps:
Want to find out how the current apps on your phone handle your privacy? If you’re an iOS user, you can check your device’s App Privacy Report, which gives you an overview of how often apps ask for permission to access your camera, contacts, location, microphone, phones, and more.
Stay vigilant when it comes to your information! Don’t just give it away for access to a free app.
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Do You Need a VPN?
Once an obscure privacy tool, VPNs are mainstream now. Everyone from your favorite Twitch streamers to your trusted tech publications is touting the benefits of using a VPN. But does the average internet user really need one? PCMag senior security analyst Max Eddy breaks down what a VPN is, and whether a VPN is right for you.
A VPN may have a role in your personal privacy toolbox if the following qualifications apply:
- You’re using a public WiFi network.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel that blocks anyone on the same network from seeing what you’re doing. It’s a must-have if, for example, you’re planning to surf the web using that Starbucks hotspot or connecting to an unfamiliar network at an airport.
- You want to spoof your location.
With a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different location and mask your IP address, obscuring your true location. Keep in mind that some sites and services have other means of figuring out where you reside. Advertisers can use browser fingerprinting to track your movements all around the internet.
- You are torrenting.
Your traffic is encrypted, so your ISP can’t see what sites you’re visiting or the files you’re downloading. Just know that you can hide specific activity from your ISP, but they may notice you’re using a lot of bandwidth, which will send up red flags and may violate their terms and conditions. Pirating content may also violate your VPN’s terms and conditions, too.
- You want to unblock streaming content.
Some streaming services offer different content to different geographic locations, so changing your VPN location could help you watch movies and television that are unavailable in your country. Realize that some streaming services block VPN users, so it may not work.
A VPN won’t do much good against the really bad stuff online, such as malware and phishing. For those threats, we recommend a security suite. A VPN also won’t save you from a hacker getting into your accounts if you’re using the same easy-to-guess password for every login. Sign up for a password manager for better, stronger passwords.
Using a VPN to protect your internet traffic from prying eyes is a good idea, but if the tool is confusing or slows your connection too much—ditch it. There are plenty of other steps you can take to surf safely at home that don’t include a VPN. Revisit VPN software if you find yourself in one of the situations listed above.
PCMag Security Analyst
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