How and Why People Use Virtual Private Networks

Authors: 

Agnieszka Dutkowska-Zuk, Lancaster University; Austin Hounsel, Princeton University; Amy Morrill, University of Chicago; Andre Xiong, Princeton University; Marshini Chetty and Nick Feamster, University of Chicago

Abstract: 

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are often used to protect online users' privacy, but many VPNs do not guarantee privacy and may even compromise user privacy through leakage of traffic flows, data collection and sharing, and so forth. In this paper, we aim to understand the extent to which people are aware of privacy and security risks when using VPNs as well as how they use and adopt VPNs in the first place. To do so, we conducted a study of 729 VPN users in the United States about their VPN usage habits and preferences. Our study comprised 32 in-person interviews with university students, a survey of 349 university students and a survey of 348 general VPN users on Prolific. We have three main findings. First, although a general population of VPN users primarily use VPNs to improve privacy and security, students are additionally concerned with access to content (e.g., circumvention of geographic restrictions). Second, both groups concluded that VPNs collect data about them, exposing gaps both in mental models about how VPNs work and awareness of the risks of data collection. Finally, most users learned about VPNs in high school or college and use free VPNs but feel safer using VPNs provided by their institutions. These results could form the basis of future research, awareness campaigns, and regulatory activity.

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

BibTeX
@inproceedings {281340,
author = {Agnieszka Dutkowska-{\.Z}uk and Austin Hounsel and Amy Morrill and Andre Xiong and Marshini Chetty and Nick Feamster},
title = {How and Why People Use Virtual Private Networks},
booktitle = {31st USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 22)},
year = {2022},
isbn = {978-1-939133-31-1},
address = {Boston, MA},
pages = {3451--3465},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/conference/usenixsecurity22/presentation/dutkowska-zuk},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug,
}