In a world where data breaches have become commonplace, demand for Virtual Private Network (“VPN”) services has increased. This is a response to constant monitoring of internet user behaviours by third parties such as governments and hackers. However, many countries have banned the use of VPNs. This article will discuss what VPNs are and their legal standing in South Africa.
VPN – use and purpose
The main use of a VPN is to prevent third parties from accessing information about an internet user’s web activity. A VPN will hide your Internet Protocol (“IP”) address, hide your location and encrypt your information. When an internet user connects with the web, their data is easily available for third parties to access. A VPN protects a user by routing their connection to the internet through a server and hiding the user’s online activity. Some VPN providers now also offer protection against malware when surfing the Web, meaning users are safer from a range of damaging software.
The use of a VPN helps protect a user’s online activity which often includes sending emails, shopping online or making online payments. It also helps keep a user’s web browsing anonymous. Some people have taken advantage of this protections and use VPNs for illegal activities. This includes spreading viruses; IP spoofing and hacking; and illegal file sharing or downloading of copyrighted material. Some users also use VPS to access content that is geo-restricted. Streaming services such as Netlfix USA and Hulu allow access to certain programming based on location and VPNs can trick these services into thinking a user is in an authorised location when they are not.
Legal standing of VPNs
In many countries such as China, Turkey, Iraq, Russia and North Korea, the use if VPNs is illegal. In most cases, the services are either illegal or VPN provider sites are blocked. It is argued that certain countries have made VPN use illegal as a form censorship and to ensure they able to monitor the online activity of citizens. As VPNs can also be used to hide illegal activities such as hacking and illegal downloading, their prohibition can also be as a means to prevent people from performing these illegal activities. Top VPN vendors take privacy very seriously and never keep record of users’ online activity. This means that should a law enforcement agency require such records as part of an investigation, they would not exist. This can make the solving of cybercrimes harder for law enforcements and contributes to some countries making VPNs illegal.
In South Africa, the use of VPNs is not illegal. Chapter XIII of The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act No 25 of 2002 makes it a criminal offense to gain unauthorized access to data through hacking and packet sniffing, intercept or interfere with data, and commit computer related extortion, fraud and forgery. It is also unlawful to intentionally spread viruses and Trojan horses. If as user makes use of a VPN to mask their illegal online activity, they will still be guilty of an offence. The use of a VPN is therefore legal as long as they are not used to hide prohibited activities.
VPNs are a useful in preventing access to your web activities by third parties. While they are illegal in some countries, this is not the case in South Africa. When travelling, make sure you find out whether the use of a VPN is legal in the country you are visiting. It is only when someone uses a VPN for illegal activities, or in jurisdictions where it is banned, then it is illegal.
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