Two shades of Virtual Private Networks

In July 2018, the Over-The-Top (OTT) tax on social media platforms was introduced to generate more revenue to improve Internet services. Critics examined it as a wider web to silence alternative or dissenting opinions on matters of public interest in Uganda.

After President Museveni spoke disdainful to social media users that the tax was aimed at dealing with the consequences of online “gossip”, this led to the massive adoption of Virtual Private Network (VPNs), to evade the daily Shs200 tax to access social media platforms.

However, many have fallen out with the application mainly due to high consumption of data and presumed insecurity associated with hackers. 
Jane Mary is one of the few hard pressed by the application because she does not normally load money on her mobile money account. 

“I buy small chunks of megabytes and incur a lot while using a one known telecom line. I cannot even think of live streaming. Currently, it is not sustainable since I use Internet to work from home. I have conceded to paying OTT,” she says.

As a social media influencer, she was advised against VPN as it is perceived to facilitate eavesdroppers into ones’ account details which would be detrimental to their digital footprint. On the flip side of VPN, Nicholas Kyomuhendo, an ethical hacker and Information Technology expert says it is a vital tool that facilitates creation of privacy tunnels against Internet censorship and liberates one’s freedom of Internet usage under unsafe environments.

VPNs mainly come to fix privacy gaps that exist when connecting users to remote private or online resources over the Internet. 

They are of two major categories; Remote Access VPNs aka road warrior VPNs and Site to Site VPNs. The remote access kind is the commonest among individual users and works to securely connect end users’ device(s), for instance, a computer or phone, through the unsafe Internet, to a VPN server at the other end of the tunnel.
Basically, it creates a secure tunnel through unsecure network to the server at the remote end where the traffic exits.

Site to Site VPN
Site to Site VPN provide connectivity of multiple users or systems concentrated in one location to resources in another location. They may operate in one or both directions. These are commonly found in multinational companies and large enterprises with geographically spread branches which need to share resources.

They are more complex in implementation as they require more specialised resources including but not necessarily limited to skillsets, equipment and at times dedicated Internet services.
For remote access VPNs, when correctly sourced and installed on client’s devices, create a secure tunnel. 

“Once that secure connection is established from your current position, nobody can eavesdrop on what you are doing nor are cybercriminals able to intercept and sniff out your sensitive information such as passwords as long as it is well configured.

 In essence, all intermediaries are blind to what other protocols and services you are accessing in there until the exit node of the tunnel or VPN server end point. That is why the right choice of VPN service provider is key since they control the exit node and at that point your traffic is no longer shadowed,” Kyomuhendo says. 

As a rule of thumb, when it comes to third party VPNs, whoever controls the exit nodes that is VPN servers controls the security and privacy of the communication session. If the service provider harbors criminal intentions or has poor cyber hygiene, then your VPN service can be a liability and may even lead to your accounts compromise, Kyomuhendo explains.

“The same is true if, either through phishing or social engineering, hackers get you to install a compromised VPN client oftentimes careful crafted to look like the authentic ones,” he says adding, “These if installed will outright lead to your accounts being hacked and or your private data being auctioned online. Proper vetting and carrying out due diligence is paramount in getting the right VPN service provider.” 

Rise of remote work
Of recent due to Covid 19, many companies enabled remote workforce to access company resources, which include vital business applications and communication tools to use VPN solution.

The most common use of VPNs is to provide encryption of traffic in transit between either offices or two communicating entities. Hence, Kyomuhendo confirms it is a practical enablement tool for remote workforce. 

Nationally, researchers observed that following the introduction of OTT, Covid-19 caused yet another spike in VPN adoption. While primarily adopted for the wrong reasons, as a way of evasion, the upside effect of VPN usage in Uganda is that more people are now surfing more securely online than previously.

Before choosing a VPN provider 
No logs of activity

The IT enthusiast affirms that it is vital to seek a service provider who offers to keep no logs of your Internet activity through their network. This is because as long as logs are kept of your browsing activity, the possibility to access them either legally or illegally is high. As soon as it is sent through, logs are destroyed hence it’s important to find a service provider who does not log your activity. 
Another is having a service provider with no Internet Protocol (IP) address leakages. “Some VPNs have leakage where your IP still ends up being noticed by places you are going to, in that case, you can still be tracked. So get one with no IP address leak issues, resources are available online to check this,” Kyomuhendo advises.