Brian Wallace, Founder & President, NowSourcing
Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are rapidly becoming an essential part of the modern online security toolkit. With so many communications professionals spending more of their time online on social media than anywhere else, protecting themselves and their data has become an increasing priority.
What Is a VPN?
If your personal online security is slightly outdated, you might be wondering what a VPN is and how it can help you maintain privacy and data security when you’re online.
At the most basic level, a VPN helps protect you by creating a private network connection that sits on top of your regular service provider. This provider might be your home internet company, your cell phone provider, or a public Wi-Fi network.
It acts as a buffer on top of an existing connection. So while your standard internet connection provides access to the internet, a VPN creates a separate tunnel on top of that, which is difficult for hackers and other malicious actors to access.
However, like any other kind of tunnel, it has a start and end point, which is particularly pertinent when assessing whether a VPN can protect your anonymity on social media.
Your Shared Information
Some social media networks encourage users to use their real names and personal information. The likes of Facebook go further than most to ensure that’s the case. The company took steps to shut down 1.3 billion fake accounts in the last quarter of 2020. Any account that doesn’t represent a real person or business runs the risk of suffering the same fate.
A VPN won’t protect your anonymity in terms of the information you willingly provide. While your connection to the site in question is secure, the data you send, and they collect is considered to have left the tunnel once it lands on their servers.
Naturally, they also have access to anything you do on the site, such as likes, comments, and pictures. Those actions are considered to have taken place on their platform, something over which your VPN has no jurisdiction.
Masking Your Location
One area in which a VPN can help on social media is preventing your site of choice from being able to tell where you are. Most websites collect the IP addresses of visitors and often associate them with specific accounts in their databases.
Even if you don’t specifically change your location, a VPN will ensure that your apparent IP address and location differ from your real one. That’s because the final step in connecting to a website comes from another server in the network. So wherever that’s located, that’s where you’ll appear to be.
This disguise can come in handy on social networks that don’t require too much authenticity from users, like Twitter and Reddit.
Ensuring Anonymity Across Social Networks
A VPN is a crucial tool if you want to remain anonymous online. It takes care of the technical side of masking your location and ensuring that nobody else can access data you send and receive while it’s in transit.
However, true anonymity hinges on the data you choose to share and the actions you decide to take. It involves creating a throwaway account with no personally identifiable information as a start. This kind of account means a different name and preferably an email account you don’t use for anything else. For complete peace of mind, it’s worth using the same VPN access point when creating and accessing that email account as when using your associated social media profiles.
As alluded to above, robust algorithms are constantly on the lookout for these kinds of fake accounts. As such, you can’t expect them to remain online for long. However, if you want to contact someone privately or give a source the chance to contact you without attracting further attention, accounts don’t need to last all that long.
Naturally, consistency is vital if you decide to adopt this approach. There’s little point in creating a social account using a VPN if you plan to access it without one in the future. Larger social networks collect access data every time you log in, and if you decide to enter an account without VPN protection, your anonymity is compromised immediately.
More Anonymous Options
It goes without saying that in the comms industry, the main reason to go to these lengths is for secure, private communication. However, if your goal is indeed to speak to people privately and anonymously, social media might not be the right tool for the job.
Signal and Telegram might be better for these purposes. Even Facebook’s own WhatsApp is a superior choice thanks to end-to-end encryption, although some privacy activists have their own concerns.
Nevertheless, if you want to access social networks to use their features and tools or participate in broader discussions, a VPN is a crucial part of your toolkit. They enable a balance between personalization and security if you want a degree of control over what you share and with whom. For true anonymity, you’ll need to go a step further with inauthentic accounts.
Of course, you might decide you want complete anonymity and don’t need to do anything in particular on social media. Some require an account just to browse, and a throwaway account is sufficient. Otherwise, the safest option may be not to go on social media in the first place!
About the Author: Brian Wallace is the Founder and President of NowSourcing, an industry leading infographic design agency in Louisville, KY and Cincinnati, OH which works with companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500s. Brian runs #LinkedInLocal events, hosts the Next Action Podcast, and has been named a Google Small Business Adviser for 2016-present. Follow Brian Wallace on Linked