Some two years ago when Wikileaks was making a different country blush every day by airing the dirty laundry of the global power spheres for all the world to see, US officials pressured Visa and Mastercard to stop processing payments to the whistleblowing site. An Icelandic court recently ordered the two companies to begin processing the payments again and so they have, all’s well and good. Though perhaps not as Visa and Mastercard have stopped processing payments from customers using VPN’s/anonymising services, an altogether wider reaching action on their part as use of VPN’s is much more widespread than donations to Wikileaks. Stick with TechWench as we get into the guts of the issue.
The two big credit card companies took a lot of flak for kowtowing to US governmental pressure over the issue of payments to Wikileaks so you would think that they would be trying to keep a clean slate for the sake of customer satisfaction and yet this recent ban on the use of payment over VPN/anonymising services comes amid no visible pressure to do so. From a legal standpoint the two companies may have to reverse the decision at some point in the near future as in the courts eyes the verdict passed by the Icelandic court will apply (in some way) to the issue of VPN’s as the two cases are quite similar. However, the cost of the legal battle to restore payments to Wikileaks (two years of legal proceedings on a case dealing with financial services, you can imagine the stakes at play here) may price the smaller VPN networks out of the courtroom unless they can band together. Though in banding together they may increase their legal costs again somewhat.
Not every VPN user/anonymous browser wants their data hidden for nefarious reasons, there are many wide reaching applications of the use of such systems, a lot of these applications are entirely legal and indeed it is good practice to use a VPN system when working away from your home network. There are ever more people out there who have a use for your private data as the scope of computer crime increases alongside the increasing amount of computers in homes and businesses. There is now more private data on the planet than ever before and those who can make use of this data are more than aware of this. Out of a created need VPN systems began to appear which would shield your information from external eyes by encrypting it and then transferring your data securely.
What information of yours would you want transmitted across the internet unsafely? None of it I imagine, especially when it comes to the issue of transmitting your bank details across the web when making a payment. You’d think that VPNs and anonymising services would be more the norm across the home computer market and yet many people still do not make use of them. Where VPN’s are used most is in the world of business, a world you’d think Visa and Mastercard would want to keep mollified and not rock the boat any more. The business applications of a VPN are obvious; insider information on business deals, industrial secrets, stock forecasts, employee records and, most importantly, information on payments leaving and entering the company are all examples of just what a business must keep safe from prying eyes. After all, the stakes are higher in the world of business and so they come under the focus of black-hat hackers, phishers and cyber criminals more frequently than a home user is and so use of VPNs in a business environment is now the norm. Much in the same way that a safe full of important documents is the norm , business computer networks are archives packed with sensitive and profitable information.
So why are Visa and Mastercard so against the idea of using anonymous services? Well so far there has been scant information from either companies on the issue despite multiple requests for clarification from a number of sources, primarily the VPN’s themselves. With no information forthcoming from Visa or Mastercard let us tease out a potential why for ourselves, shall we? Who looks bad at the moment from a privacy point of view? The spy services of various countries around the world as Edward Snowden has whistleblown on the NSA’s PRISM systems, this led to other countries mass-cyber-surveillance programs being exposed to the public eye. What has this led to an increase in? The use of anonymising services as people who thought they weren’t being spied on found out that in fact they were being spied on. Not an extraneous reaction to discovering that what they thought was private was in fact accessible by government stooges under the umbrella reason of “security purposes”. Which of the applications of a VPN would Visa, Mastercard or governments want to stop? The lack of a trail for them to follow from a legal standpoint, what happens on a VPN is not recorded back to a specific IP, would be one. The other would be their capacity for file-sharing.
File-sharing. That most heinous of crimes. Or so Hollywood would have the government would have you believe. “Movie Piracy directly funds organised crime” isn’t that the message we are told to swallow? All those kids at home pirating their home entertainment are feeding felons fat, right? Pull the other one Hollywood. If movie piracy was such an issue, such a dent in studio profits then surely they wouldn’t be posting record profits year on year, surely four out of five of the highest grossing films ever wouldn’t have been released in the last five years? Hollywood makes money left, right and centre whilst vehemently trying to screw over anyone of a different opinion when it comes to the sharing of media. Media pirates, a recent study has shown, are some of the biggest consumers of paid for media so you’d think Hollywood would be happy to allow a certain level of file-sharing to occur. It’s free advertising right?
Yet the MPAA amongst other Hollywood representative groups pile on the pressure to stamp out file-sharing anyway they can. Visa and Mastercard do not process payments from file-sharing sites with affiliate programs (these programs allow people to profit off whatever data they store or transfer online). Paypal has stopped servicing these cyberlocker services over the recent months, despite their being many legitimate uses of such a system. Remember the infamous day they shut down Megavideo and all Mega services via legally questionable methods? There were many legitimate businesses that used Mega services for whole hosts of reasons and paid for the right to do so. The US government now finds itself amid many loss-of-earnings lawsuits as they effectively ran a flamethrower over the entire service forcing down time upon businesses as they had to rebuild networks that were destroyed by the US government.
So what is all this likely to result in? There are a number of factors to input here; Visa and Mastercard have stopped processing payments from anonymous users (despite having plenty paper trail, VPN users still have to input their bank details), world governments look bad because they have removed our online anonymity and VPN users are on the increase as a result. A twisted mix with no clear answers coming from either Visa, Mastercard or world governments on the issue of anonymity. One thing which is certain to happen; use of anonymising services will increase as people become more aware of how visible they are online and the fact that Visa and Mastercard apparently want our sensitive data to be sent across unsecure channels. The ban will more than likely lead to an increase of Bitcoin usage around the world, the current badboy on the financial market which is bucking the trend of currencies worldwide, as it embraces anonymity as a right.
Are the efforts of Visa or Mastercard likely to succeed? I wouldn’t put my money on it that’s for sure. If this ban comes off the back of Hollywood pressure over file-sharing well then too bad Hollywood, you won’t be able to stop the world pirating media, not that TechWench endorses media piracy but Pandora’s box is well and truly open on that front. Hollywood’s fault for making such good movies I guess, if they made no movies then no one would pirate them, maybe they should try that approach as this one won’t work. But then again how would Hollywood executives fill their cocaine troughs without the massively profitable world of blockbuster films. If the ban comes from the US government trying to maintain their surveillance networks then maybe the efforts will be a little more permanent as they have invested a considerable number of billions of dollars in their surveillance state and aren’t likely to give that up without a fight.
One thing I know I will be doing however is switching to using a VPN service on a regular basis as opposed to only on public networks. It’ll be TOR when I’m out of the office all the way I can tell you, online anonymity should be held as a right in my opinion, it’s just good practice, no-one strolls the streets with their sensitive information on a t-shirt so why should online be any different? The streets are incomparably busier after all. In fighting so hard to remove our anonymity Visa, Mastercard and whoever is supplying them with pressure, be it Hollywood or governments; they are only showing us how valuable our data is to them and therefore how much we should value our own anonymity in these watchful times.