Early October, Ryan S. Lin, 24, of Newton, Massachusetts, was arrested on suspicion of conducting “an extensive cyberstalking campaign” against a 24-year-old Massachusetts woman, as well as her family members and friends.
The Department of Justice described Lin’s offenses as a “multi-faceted” computer hacking and cyberstalking campaign. Launched in April 2016 when he began hacking into the victim’s online accounts, Lin allegedly obtained personal photographs and sensitive information about her medical and sexual histories and distributed that information to hundreds of other people.
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Details of what information the FBI compiled on Lin can be found in our earlier report but aside from his alleged crimes (which are both significant and repugnant), it was PureVPN’s involvement in the case that caused the most controversy.
In a report compiled by an FBI special agent, it was revealed that the Hong Kong-based company’s logs helped the authorities net the alleged criminal.
“Significantly, PureVPN was able to determine that their service was accessed by the same customer from two originating IP addresses: the RCN IP address from the home Lin was living in at the time, and the software company where Lin was employed at the time,” the agent’s affidavit reads.
Among many in the privacy community, this revelation was met with disappointment. On the PureVPN website the company claims to carry no logs and on a general basis, it’s expected that so-called “no-logging” VPN providers should provide people with some anonymity, at least as far as their service goes. Now, several days after the furor, the company has responded to its critics.
In a fairly lengthy statement, the company begins by confirming that it definitely doesn’t log what websites a user views or what content he or she downloads.
However, that’s only half the problem. While it doesn’t log user activity (what sites people visit or content they download), it does log the IP addresses that customers use to access the PureVPN service. These, given the right circumstances, can be matched to external activities thanks to logs carried by other web companies.
PureVPN talks about logs held by Google’s Gmail service to illustrate its point.
“A network log is automatically generated every time a user visits a website. For the sake of this example, let’s say a user logged into their Gmail account. Every time they accessed Gmail, the email provider created a network log,” the company explains.
“If you are using a VPN, Gmail’s network log would contain the IP provided by PureVPN. This is one half of the picture. Now, if someone asks Google who accessed the user’s account, Google would state that whoever was using this IP, accessed the account.
“If the user was connected to PureVPN, it would be a PureVPN IP. The inquirer [in the Lin case, the FBI] would then share timestamps and network logs acquired from Google and ask them to be compared with the network logs maintained by the VPN provider.”
Now, if PureVPN carried no logs – literally no logs – it would not be able to help with this kind of inquiry. That was the case last year when the FBI approached Private Internet Access for information and the company was unable to assist.
However, as is made pretty clear by PureVPN’s explanation, the company does log user IP addresses and timestamps which reveal when a user was logged on to the service. It doesn’t matter that PureVPN doesn’t log what the user allegedly did online, since the third-party service already knows that information to the precise second.
Following the example, GMail knows that a user sent an email at 10:22am on Monday October 16 from a PureVPN IP address. So, if PureVPN is approached by the FBI, the company can confirm that User X was using the same IP address at exactly the same time, and his home IP address was XXX.XX.XXX.XX. Effectively, the combined logs link one IP address to the other and the user is revealed. It’s that simple.
It is for this reason that in TorrentFreak’s annual summary of no-logging VPN providers, the very first question we ask every single company reads as follows:
Do you keep ANY logs which would allow you to match an IP-address and a time stamp to a user/users of your service? If so, what information do you hold and for how long?
Clearly, if a company says “yes we log incoming IP addresses and associated timestamps”, any claim to total user anonymity is ended right there and then.
While not completely useless (a logging service will still stop the prying eyes of ISPs and similar surveillance, while also defeating throttling and site-blocking), if you’re a whistle-blower with a job or even your life to protect, this level of protection is entirely inadequate.
The take-home points from this controversy are numerous, but perhaps the most important is for people to read and understand VPN provider logging policies.
Secondly, and just as importantly, VPN providers need to be extremely clear about the information they log. Not tracking browsing or downloading activities is all well and good, but if home IP addresses and timestamps are stored, this needs to be made clear to the customer.
Finally, VPN users should not be evil. There are plenty of good reasons to stay anonymous online but cyberstalking, death threats and ruining people’s lives are not included. Fortunately, the FBI have offline methods for catching this type of offender, and long may that continue.
PureVPN’s blog post is available here.