Indians are familiar with sharing Netflix accounts. One account, four users. Now, the same Indians are looking to share the cost of virtual private networks (VPNs) as increasingly they pay for VPN accounts. The reasons are several. There are thousands of websites that are now banned in India, using opaque and official or unofficial means. To access many of these websites, Indian users are now turning to VPNs. Then, there is the safety and surveillance aspect. As cybercrimes, identity thefts and the risks of surveillance grow in India, users are turning to VPNs.
Here is a number: According to data extracted from Google Play Store and Apple App Store using Sensor Tower service, India ranked fourth among 85 countries in the VPN penetration rate for the first half of 2021. India’s VPN installation penetration went up from only 3.28 per cent population in 2020 to 25.27 per cent in the first six months of 2021.
But beyond the numbers, there are stories. A group of friends was looking for a fourth member to share their Virtual Private Network (VPN) account with. Even before I could say yes to my part of the contribution, they had found someone else.
Though soon, another friend approached with a similar proposal, asking me if I wanted to share an account with her. That is just how popular and useful VPNs are now deemed in India. While a lot of VPN use is to access streaming content that is geographically locked out of India, that’s not the only reason why Indians are now using VPNs.
A tech enthusiast, on the condition of anonymity, says that user information can be stolen even from poorly configured private WiFi, let alone public WiFi, which is next level insecure. Because the data travelling through VPN is encrypted, it helps during banking transactions as it cannot be snooped from unsecured websites from internet connections.
Now that there is talk of banning VPNs in India, there is a fear among users that it would lead to inconvenience. At the same time, experts say that banning VPNs is no solution because there are many more different methods that cybercriminals for their activities. Last month, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs noted that the use of VPNs should be banned in India. Here is how a VPN works.
A VPN user says that the ban proposal is ridiculous. “Today they want to block VPNs citing crime, next they would want to disable password protection on phones as criminals use passwords on their phones to hide evidence,” says the person.
Why do people use VPNs
Experts say that there is a legitimate use of VPNs. “I use VPN for privacy reasons. A friend told me that out of many other issues, using the public internet is dangerous without VPNs. So when I go to an airport or a cafe and use the net, I like to feel secure. And again, privacy is very important to me. The service providers and these corporate conglomerates already know too much about me than I am comfortable with,” says Mritunjay Rathore, who started using VPNs a while ago.
Karan Saini, an ethical hacker, notes that VPNs allow people to access the uncensored internet. He says that a sizeable number of websites are blocked in India — over 4000 — without regard to their content, whether pornographic, scientific, cultural, or anything else. He says that the ability of Indian internet users to browse the web freely is decisively fettered and will continue to be in the foreseeable future.
“Considering that, banning one of the ways in which users circumvent censorship should be considered extremely harmful for the ecosystem of the internet in India and quality of life in the country in general,” says Saini.
Saini is a big believer in VPNs and their ability to protect user information. He says users should use VPN services (they don’t necessarily have to be commercial VPN services), even if they have nothing to hide. “A ban on VPN services will hamper democratic freedoms enjoyed by Indians, and which are furthered by the internet,” says Saini.
Can VPN ban in India reduce cybercrime
Who is likely to get affected the most by the VPN ban, and will it help stop cybercrime? Experts say that a ban will create hassles for users, without impacting cybercriminals.
“If there is a ban on VPN, the biggest challenge will be faced by internet companies or big corporations as they use it the most to tackle various attacks,” says cyber security researcher Rajashekhar Rajaharia. “Most ethical hackers and cyber security researchers also use VPN because they do not want their IPs to be tracked.”
But how bad can banning VPNs get? Rajaharia says it will not make much of a difference to cybercriminals as they will continue to use the TOR browser which is near impossible to ban or block. “VPN can be tracked but TOR cannot be tracked, which makes TOR a bigger challenge. While VPN or proxies are used by big companies, TOR is used by hackers, so the authorities cannot entirely stop hackers or spammers from carrying out their activity,” he says.
Akshay Pednekar, a Mumbai-based cyber security analyst, says that if the government is thinking of banning something, it should aim at TOR and not VPNs. “TOR was built to access the internet,” he says, adding that this feature of TOR has resulted in an ecosystem of the deep web where a lot of illegal activities going on. Banning VPNs is unlikely to offer any solution, he suggests.