For all the hand-wringing over the amount of data Google and Facebook have on us, the ISPs through which we connect to the internet have much more. VPN services are often cited as a way to preserve your privacy online, and many claim to keep no logs that could potentially unmask users. PureVPN is one such provider, but those non-existent logs apparently helped the FBI track down an internet stalker. That really raises some questions about the claims made by VPN providers.
The Justice Department announced the arrest of one Ryan Lin (24) on Friday, accusing him of stalking former roommate Jennifer Smith (also 24). The behavior alleged by the complaint against Lin is exceedingly despicable. Smith was subjected to doxxing by the stalker, who posted her personal account information online, sent private information to friends and family, made death threats, and created fake online profiles for Smith dedicated to sexual fetishes.
If Lin is indeed the perpetrator, he’s a truly awful person who deserves to be caught. However, the way he was caught is raising some eyebrows. The FBI claims its examination of Lin’s devices shows he used various anonymization services to harass Smith, including Tor and PureVPN. He used these services to access anonymous email and SMS tools that were found in his web history. Despite PureVPN’s claim that it doesn’t keep records, the feds say the company was able to help ID Lin as the stalker.
A VPN is basically a way to route all your traffic from a machine via a secure tunnel. Rather than going directly to a website or service, your data goes through an encrypted connection to the VPN provider, which then forwards it along. All your ISP sees is data going to the VPN.
If convicted, Lin could face up to five years in prison for his alleged crimes. PureVPN has not made a statement on what data it may be collecting. Most people using VPNs aren’t doing it to hide criminal activity; they just want to maintain some semblance of privacy online or access geo-restricted services. They deserve to know if their activities are actually being tracked.