Is VPN illegal?

Is VPN illegal?

Updated: 08-02-2021

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts your internet connection, making it impossible to track or hack your device while you're online. VPNs disguise the Internet Protocol (IP) address you are using and prevent prying eyes from locating you. In this regard, many governments have banned VPNs, while others allow VPNs use within limits.

However, in many countries across the globe VPNs are legal. But using VPN for illegal online activities remains an offense.

These unlawful online activities may include:

Illegal file-sharing/Torrenting: This is the act of downloading and uploading copyright-protected content over the internet

Hacking: Gaining unauthorized access to another computer system to disrupt activity, carry out acts of fraud, or steal data.

Buying or selling of drugs and weapons over the internet

Downloading or distributing child pornography

Cyberstalking: It's unlawful to encrypt your internet connection while stalking people online

Distribution of internet viruses: Attempting to infect other networks with viruses while hiding your IP address.

IP spoofing: This is the act of creating IP packets by impersonating a computer on a legitimate network.

It's good to note that a VPN protects your privacy and data, but it's criminal to use a VPN to carry out illegal activities.

Countries With Controlled VPN Use

Belarus: The European country illegalized any access to foreign websites in 2012 - violators are subject to a fine of least $120. In 2015, the government passed more laws forcing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to spy on their users. Using VPNs to access foreign sites is therefore entirely illegal in Belarus.

Iraq: VPNs are banned in Iraq to aid the fight against terrorism, cites the government. The Iraqi government blocked the use of VPNs for individuals and corporate entities in 2014. It was a subtle approach, unlike in the past when the government would switch the internet off.

Oman: Oman restricted any personal use of VPNs back in 2010. Violators may pay a fine of more than $1000. The Omani government, however, grants permissions for the institutional use of VPNs.

Turkmenistan: The state owns the only ISP, subjecting the country to extreme censorship. Those who attempt accessing restricted sites may have their SIM cards blocked permanently. Since Turkmenistan blocks VPN apps, downloading VPN software may be incredibly difficult.

North Korea: In North Korea, locals can't access the internet and VPNs. The country has only about 7000 people accessing the internet. However, the government has developed a unique intranet with only 28 websites accessible.

An intranet is a local or restricted network for communication, especially a private network developed using World Wide Web software.

Unsanctioned access to the internet for any North Korean can result in a civil fine or even execution. Interestingly, tourists can use the internet and legally use VPNs without any repercussions.

China: The Chinese government exerts internet regulation and censorship with an iron fist. The government has banned access to certain websites like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia. Accessing the internet using VPNs is illegal unless you use a VPN approved in China. However, the Chinese government does not impose most of these restrictions on individuals but rather on VPN service providers.

Turkey: Turkey has imposed VPNs and social media bans since 2016 to “fight terrorism.” The government uses a site known as Turkey Blocks to map ongoing access to restricted websites. 

The United Arab Emirates: VPN use for private individuals was blocked in the country in 2012. Only corporate entities and banks can use VPNs with no restrictions. The UAE cybercrime law specifies that using VPNs to commit crimes is illegal. The UAE telecom authority states that VPN use is not entirely unlawful as long as it is used for legal actions.

Russia: In July 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning any VPN use in the country except those that are government approved. Only Kaspersky's Secure Connection VPN complied with the government terms, thus becoming the major VPN provider in Russia. The Russian government did this to control the spread of extremist material and unlawful content fed to the public. Recently, Russia introduced a set of laws that instructs ISPs to install equipment to track, filter, and reroute internet traffic.

Iran: The Iranian government blocked VPN use in 2013 and then introduced a government-controlled national intranet that can be cut off anytime from the world-wide-web. It is imperative to note that Iran has not entirely banned VPNs; you can still use government-approved VPNs.

Why Some Countries Ban VPNs

Generally, using VPNs is legal, especially in countries that respect the citizens’ freedom of speech. However, some governments ban social media and VPNs to suppress the freedom of speech and the international community's scrutiny.

Instead of imposing total bans, some governments regulate VPNs by only allowing those that are government-approved. This gives such governments a certain level of control over their citizens.

Even if VPNs are supposed to provide privacy, some providers may release your private information, including logs, to law enforcement authorities upon request. This mostly happens if you’re involved in a serious internet-based crime.

How Do Governments Implement VPN Bans?

Some governments make it a legal requirement for VPN providers to seek government permission before giving out VPN services to their citizens. Government-approved VPN providers are also required to surrender their users' reports/data to the authorities at any time.

For instance, China has not entirely banned VPNs, but only government-authorized and registered VPNs are allowed. In 2017, Apple bowed to pressure from Chinese cyber regulators and removed VPN apps from the China App Store.

Also, the government frequently orders ISPs to block VPN provider's IP addresses and specific ports to prevent VPN use in the country. There are legal consequences for people using or selling unauthorized VPN software inside mainland China.

If a country's law states that using VPN is illegal unless under certain conditions, violating the law may lead to legal consequences. Mainly, the governments use these legal consequences to keep people aligned to the VPN services regulations imposed on them.

Are There Legitimate Ways of Using VPNs? 

There are numerous legitimate VPN uses, and they include the following: 

To secure workplaces: Large organizations ought to add a security layer for protecting sensitive financial data. Financial institutions such as banks do not allow employees to access their workstations directly but instead, use a VPN and RSA technology to ensure the data's security. RSA is a digital risk company that focuses on encryption and encryption standards.

Privacy concerns: People concerned about their privacy use VPNs to hide from the government and other organizations. Some authors and reporters who write about bold and sensitive anti-government topics use VPNs to hide their IP addresses to avoid arrest and persecution.

Additionally, users who do not like the idea of search engines tracking their search histories opt to use a VPN to hide their identities.

Public Wi-Fi risks: Public Wi-Fi may pose a danger to your personal data's security. Generally, it's advisable to use public Wi-Fi to surf the internet but not to complete secure transactions because it is easier for a hacker to access your internet traffic when you use public Wi-Fi.

To avoid being hacked, you may consider using a VPN when browsing on public Wi-Fi. A VPN can tunnel your data over a secured network to protect it from prying eyes. 

Protecting conversations: Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services are also relatively easy to eavesdrop on.

VOIP is a type of technology used to deliver voice communications over IP protocols. Using a VPN is ideal if you suspect that someone else is monitoring your communication.  

Bypass geo-restrictions: For instance, you can use a VPN to access a service that is not in a particular country. However, this is risky as it can have your account banned from accessing the content in the future.  

Do Individual VPN Users Have Legal Rights When Using VPNs? 

Your legal rights when using VPNs vary with the VPN provider's terms of service and your country of residence.

It is usually advisable to cross-check a VPN's terms of service and privacy policy before signing up with one. This ensures you are satisfied with the VPN terms and conditions before signing up.

Any criminal activity liability is upon the user and not the VPN service provider. You should also check to see whether there’s a clause in terms of service stating that a VPN server may report any illegal or fraudulent activity to the government.

Additionally, it is crucial to understand a service's terms and conditions before using a VPN to access it. For example, Netflix's terms and conditions clearly state that a user must be within the country where the Netflix account is established to view any content on their platform. Users can only access content in the geographic locations where Netflix offers its service and have such content licensed. 

It implies that using a VPN to access Netflix while within a country where Netflix service doesn't operate is a breach of their terms of service. Your Netflix account can be terminated or restricted for violating these terms of use. 

Before traveling abroad, always ensure whether or not the country legalizes the use of VPNs. If VPNs are outlawed or restricted, you may consider uninstalling any VPNs on your devices to avoid getting yourself in trouble with the authorities. 

All leading VPN service providers have a no-logs policy implying that they don't track your online activities. But this is not the case for government-approved VPNs; they keep logs that the government can access at any given time. It is the apparent reason most VPN providers are only located in countries with stringent privacy laws. 

Is Being Illegal and Being Against Terms of Use Different? 

Some people get confused by the difference between a VPN company's terms of use and the government's laws. For instance, if you use VPN software to unlock particular geographic perks or find certain goods or services with better pricing, this is not considered illegal.

The term 'illegal' generally refers to actions that are forbidden by law. Using a VPN to gain streaming advantages does not break any country law. However, you might be violating a particular streaming service, game, or online software terms of use by doing that.

Even though you will not be convicted of any criminal act, your account might be blocked if the service provider finds out you are getting better pricing by using a VPN. 

Are There Any Legal Consequences for Violating VPN Use?

Countries that have completely banned or restricted the use of VPNs have severe legal consequences against violators. Using a VPN for illegal activities in countries that allow VPNs can also land you in trouble.

Despite claiming otherwise, almost all VPN providers keep some users' information and provide it to authorities upon request.

For instance, in 2017, the US Department of Justice used VPN logs to prosecute an individual for allegedly stalking other people while using PureVPN.

Potentially, your VPN can record your usage logs and connection logs. Usage logs have information about the websites, apps, or devices you used with a particular VPN.

On the other hand, connection logs include:

  • Your actual IP address.
  • The VPN IP addresses you were assigned.
  • The amount of data used.

But not all VPN providers contradict their privacy policy; some maintain confidentiality for their clients at all costs.

Who Can Access Your VPN Usage Information? 

VPNs do not entirely hide your private information on the internet since there are numerous other methods of revealing your data. Below are some institutions that can access your data even when using a VPN: 

Internet Service Providers (ISP): Without using VPNs, internet service providers can access all your online activities. VPNs will hide your information, but ISPs will still seeing your connection logs, i.e., the VPN encrypted IP address, the browsing time, and the amount of traffic on your device.  

Search Engines: Most search engines collect your information since you have permitted them to use a unified profile despite having a VPN. Unified profiles offer a centralized view of all activities of a user across every device. If you use a VPN to log into your Google account, the Google search engine still retains your search history information. 

Social Media Sites: Keeping yourself logged into specific social media sites like Facebook can be used to track your browsing. Additionally, it is possible to track all websites logged in using a social media account. Ignoring your IP address, advertisers can access data linked to your social media accounts.

Employers: Companies using VPNs usually route employees' traffic to a network owned by the company. Even though they may be absent physically, employers monitor any activity that might go against company policy. If you send abusive content, view pornographic content, or download pirated content, it may alert your company's cybersecurity team. Many employers also have the power to access your office device as administrators and view your browsing history.  

Law Enforcement: Authorities can’t access your internet traffic if you’re using a VPN. Instead, law enforcement authorities may request your connection logs from your ISP if you engage in criminal activity. It’s upon the VPN provider to decide if they’ll comply; if your VPN provider has strict no-log policies, you might be lucky. 

How Do You Ensure Total Privacy When Using a VPN? 

Using a multi-hop VPN will add an extra encryption layer to your standard VPN connection. A multi-hop VPN or a double VPN connection cascades at most two VPN servers together, making it extremely difficult to track your browsing activities.

The dual VPN connection bounces your IP address between several VPN servers so that anyone monitoring you won't be able to access your internet traffic. 

Each node removes an encryption layer in a multi-hop VPN to reveal the next node's IP address. In most cases, the data is encrypted twice, with your geo-location hidden behind two or more IP addresses.

Since your traffic will have to pass through multiple VPNs, your online security increases, but you’ll have to deal with slow browsing speeds. 

If you use a multi-hop VPN, you'll have access to an automatic Kill Switch that closely monitors your devices' and VPN servers' connections. The kill switch will shut down the internet connection automatically upon detecting a VPN connection drop, thus protecting your identity.

How Do Websites Block VPNs? 

Websites rely on IP addresses when locating and tracking users. IP tracking sends targeted ads showing users different content depending on their country of residence and browsing history.

Since generating unique IP addresses might be complex, VPN servers have limited IP addresses, with most servers using IPv4.

Often, a bunch of subscribers will share the same IP addresses for different periods. Websites may opt to blacklist these VPNs, thus blocking IP addresses already used by various users. 

Besides IP blocking, companies also implement port blocking as a way of blocking VPNs. Port blocking will require a website to find out the exit ports used by a VPN for all IP addresses.

Another method known as a deep-packet inspection (DPI) is also effective when blocking VPNs. The technique looks for cryptography signatures from the users' metadata. Cryptography signatures or digital signatures are difficult to hide; therefore, DPI is a very effective way of blocking VPNs. 

Do Websites Contract With Streaming Sites to Ban VPNs? 

Most media-streaming websites like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and the BBC ban VPNs to fulfill regional contracts with licensing companies. For instance, since the popularity of a show on these streaming platforms differs by region, streaming services only sign regional agreements with the licensing companies.

A streaming service that wishes to add a TV show or a new movie to its library must sign a contract with the licensing company that owns the program.  

For example, Korean dramas are culturally-specific programs; thus, they may be more popular in some regions than others. In this case, Netflix won't necessarily pay much to secure the Korean drama with an American license since the drama isn't much profitable outside Korea.

If Koreans use VPNs when watching shows on American Netflix, Korean programming value may significantly fall. Many Koreans won't use Korean streaming services for these shows cheaply available on American Netflix. 

Licensing companies and TV networks do not want to decrease the value of their shows. Therefore, they sign a regional contract with streaming services. The streaming services have to blacklist VPNs to enforce these contracts.

Do Public Wi-Fi Networks Block VPNs? 

Since public networks aren't secure and are easy to hack, it is always advisable to use a VPN when connecting to such a network. Blacklisting VPNs on public Wi-Fi networks exposes users' activity and makes them vulnerable to online attacks.

Are There Ways to Get Around Blacklists? 

Most VPN users are not necessarily criminals but rather people concerned about their privacy. These people only want to circumvent geo-locked and government-censored content. Businesses blacklisting VPN services is a denial of the right to privacy and information.

However, you can use the following ways to get around VPN blacklists: 

  • Using premium VPN services and altogether avoiding free VPNs.   
  • Obtaining a private VPN IP address.
  • Since most VPNs use an easily detectable 1194 port, switching the VPN port to 2018, 41185, 433, or 80 might be effective. 
  • Use obfuscated servers whenever they are available. 
  • Use SSH, SSL, or TLS tunnels whenever available as they are slower but secure.
  • Use the TOR browser. 

Using VPNs keeps your data and identity away from prying eyes. In countries that adhere to freedom of speech, VPNs are legal to use. However, some countries limit freedom of speech and therefore block their citizens from using VPNs. People seeking to use VPNs should first consider if these services are legal in their countries of residence or not.

All in all, having a VPN is a great way of protecting yourself from nosy individuals online. If you value your privacy and you’d like to browse anonymously and access restricted content, get a VPN today! 

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