S12 E14: Viktor Vecsei on IVPN & Internet Privacy

The idea of internet privacy lays at the foundation of Bitcoin. Satoshi Nakamoto himself used every tool which helped him protect his anonymity, recommended early users to route their transactions via Tor for obfuscation, and dedicated chapter 10 of his whitepaper to privacy.

But unlike Tor (which routes your connection through random nodes), VPN services offer an arbitrary way to access the internet via third party servers. Your data packets get encrypted and you use the same IP address as hundreds or thousands of other users worldwide – meaning that the access information can belong to any of the users and there is a degree of plausible deniability.

Your IP address is basically your identity on the internet. Anyone who knows it will associate you with a pretty precise location (country, city) and will know the name of your internet service provider (ISP). Furthermore, someone contacting the ISP may be able to figure out your identity. And as a Bitcoin user, it’s better to be extra cautious with the kind of information you leave for others to discover.

VPN services are pretty good at hiding your IP address and encrypting your data – granted that you pick the right service. Ideally, the VPN should not be able to know who you are. So no billing address, bank account data, e-mail address, or even IP address should be collected. Any such detail may lead to the identification of your account, and therefore defeat the purpose of using the privacy tool at all.

Today, there are dozens of VPNs which promise good privacy and claim that they store no logs. YouTubers will tell you to use ExpressVPN, Nord VPN, Surfshark, Private Internet Access, Pure VPN, and lots of other solutions which require e-mail for signup. Even when they accept payment via bitcoin (for which you should opt for your own privacy), they use some payment processor. These services may be great for watching Netflix in another country, but Satoshi Nakamoto would have never touched them.

If you remember my interview with Peter Todd from February 2020, he briefly mentioned Mullvad VPN: a service which generates a random account number in your browser to eliminate the need for e-mail authentication and then allows you to pay with bitcoin. The best part about it is that the service can’t know who you are, and therefore has no means to store information about your internet use. You can even open their website using the Tor browser to further improve your privacy.

But the issue with Mullvad is that they don’t accept Lightning network payments – which are much more private thanks to the limited number of participants who store any kind of information about your transaction.

Well, IVPN ticks all the boxes: it generates an account to avoid collecting any contact data about you, lets you pay with bitcoin and also supports Lightning network transactions. The only drawback is that, in comparison with Mullvad, it offers fewer servers to which you can connect. Otherwise, the service is something that Satoshi Nakamoto himself would have used.

IVPN’s apps and website are also open source – meaning that the client that you use to connect to their servers has a publicly-available code that anyone can check to verify that the software does what it claims to do. If there’s anything malevolent in the way the VPN service operates, then somebody can easily find it.

After meeting Viktor Vecsei from IVPN during the privacy panel which I moderated at the Baltic Honeybadger 2022 conference, I decided to have him on the show to explain what a VPN is, how it works, and what kind of privacy expectations one shouldn’t have from it. The result is a 90-minute interview which takes a deep dive into the (mostly empty) promises of the privacy industry. Obviously, there is no absolute privacy and there are tradeoffs in every method. Viktor Vecsei might be the COO of IVPN and have a vested interest in seeing the privacy industry expand, but he would definitely agree with this statement.

But marketing departments tend to obfuscate or distort some facts for the purpose of appealing to certain types of customers (for example, during the 2020 lockdowns they would claim that VPNs are indispensable when you work from home).

Viktor Vecsei is honest, direct, and willing to unravel all the mysteries of the VPN industry. While he might be biased about IVPN, he still has the ability to take a critical look at some fundamental aspects and even present the worst that can happen to the service for which he works. It’s a truly educational interview from which I’ve personally learned a lot – and hope that you will too.

Listen to Viktor Vecsei on Spotify, Apple Podcasts & YouTube!

Ideally, you shouldn’t be using any of these big tech platforms to consume Bitcoin-related content. If anything, you should minimize the amount of data that you enable internet companies to collect about your preferences and behavior. Which is why I recommend you to use this free player in the Tor browser or with a VPN connection.

But if you do use big tech platforms such as YouTube, Spotify & Apple Podcasts, then please subscribe and leave feedback. Your input isn’t only some sort of vanity metric – it actively tells the algorithms to rank the content a little higher. Which means that a few seconds of your time can make a difference in terms of the Bitcoin Takeover podcast’s discoverability. Somebody else searching for information on how to make his internet connection private will find this interview with Viktor Vecsei with greater ease and benefit from all the great information that you don’t hear in any VPN marketing material.

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Vlad Costea

I'm here for the freedom, censorship-resistance, and unconfiscatability. What about you?

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