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How Secure Is A VPN?

How Secure Is A VPN?

Updated: 07-28-2021

Essentially, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts everything you do online. A VPN acts as a secure tunnel for all your internet traffic, making it difficult for third parties to track you. Internet Service Providers (ISP), governments, or hackers won’t know what you’re doing online when connected to a VPN.

But, one of the main issues of concern among many VPN users is whether VPN service providers can track them.

This concern derives from the fact that only the VPN providers have the key to decipher an encrypted connection.

Most trusted VPN providers have clear privacy policies stating that they don’t keep users’ logs. But the question remains: can you trust VPN providers?

In this article, I’ll discuss:

  • Various types of encryptions used by VPN providers and how secure they are.
  • What happens when you connect to a VPN service
  • Whether ISPs can track you while on a private browser
  • Whether a VPN is hackable
  • And more.

Are VPNs Secure?

When you connect to the internet without a VPN, the ISP assigns your device an Internet Protocol (IP) address and forwards internet traffic to sites you’re connected to. The sites can use the IP address to track down your geographical location without your knowledge.

It is also possible for the government and hackers to monitor your browsing history and know exactly what you do online.

However, when using VPNs, the information sent or received over the internet is encrypted, and even ISPs can’t find out what you’re doing online. This is because you’re connected to a VPN server that assigns you a different IP address, making it difficult for prying eyes to monitor your online activities.

How To Select a Secure VPN

VPN providers offer different features that come at varying prices.

But it is always advisable to select a premium VPN service because they’re more secure than free VPNs.

Some free VPNs may sell your data to third parties, and that is why you cannot trust them.

On the other hand, most paid VPN providers guarantee online security and have transparent privacy policies.

Why Free VPNs Are Not Secure

As mentioned earlier, you really can’t trust free VPNs. Here are some reasons why.

They Gather and Sell Users Data

Maintaining a VPN server is expensive; for that reason, free VPNs collect users’ data and sell it to the highest bidder to keep themselves in business. This is entirely the opposite of what VPNs should do.

Rather than protecting sensitive user data from prying eyes, free VPNs sell the data for profit, compromising users’ privacy and exposing them to cybercriminals.

They Track Users’ Online Activity

Most free VPNs embed a third-party tracking tool in their software that collects users’ information and sells it to advertisers, , the users with aggressive ads.

These types of ads contain links to malicious websites that hackers can then use to infect a device with viruses.

Aggressive ads not only threaten your privacy but also ruin your internet surfing experience. Moreover, high-volume ads slow down device performance even when connected to a high-speed network.

They Limit Data Usage

Free VPNs limit the amount of time a user can browse the internet with the VPN activated. After the stipulated time or browsing session ends, the VPN connection drops.

Some free VPNs also can’t unblock certain geo-restricted content, which is not ideal for users who wish to bypass territorial restrictions.

They Slow Down the Internet Connection

Free VPNs provide high-speed connections to users who pay for their premium service and neglect those on their free plan. They intentionally limit bandwidth or reduce internet speed to encourage free plan users to migrate to the paid plans, promising improved speed.

Prone To Leaking Users’ IP Addresses

It is easier for hackers or prying eyes to monitor your online activities without your knowledge if you’re on a free VPN service. This is because free VPNs contain many security loopholes that can leak your original IP address to the outside world. Free VPNs don’t offer total security and have weak encryption technology.

They Can Easily Expose Users to Malware

Some free VPNs contain harmful bugs that may even steal sensitive user information. When that happens, the victims risk being targeted by cybercriminals.

Features of a Secure VPN

A secure VPN comes with distinct characteristics, as discussed below.

Has No IP Address or DNS Leaks

An IP leak is the leaking of the original IP address to the outside world when you’re connected to a VPN service. On the other hand, a DNS leak occurs when a poor VPN service reveals DNS requests to your ISP and fails to conceal them.

Such leaks result in a critical privacy threat because ISPs or eavesdroppers can see what you do online. 

To ensure safety while browsing, opt for a VPN service with no history of IP address or DNS leaks. Also, check online reviews on how different VPN services respond to such leaks.

Does Not Keep User Logs

VPN logs are records of your original IP address, online activity, history, and connection times. These logs are usually compiled while you’re connected to a VPN.

When selecting a VPN service, it is essential to read their logging policies and understand the type of data they collect before signing up.

Most VPN providers claim to have a no-log policy but this is often not true. There are three types of logs that a VPN provider might record, as listed below:

Activity logs: These logs contain your browsing history, DNS requests, sites visited, and metadata.

Connection logs: They mostly contain your bandwidth usage, connection times, original IP address, and VPN server address.

Aggregated logs: These logs are used for marketing and advertising purposes.

From the above information, you now understand why it is essential to determine which type of VPNs logs a particular provider collects and how long they keep them.

A secure VPN does not keep any logs linked to an individual user, ensuring complete anonymity while browsing the internet. Avoid any VPN service that stores browsing activity, original IP address, individual timestamps, and bandwidth usage.

Has an Automated Kill Switch

A kill switch is a VPN feature that switches off the internet connection on a device if a VPN connection drops. There are two types of VPN kill switch protocols:

  • System-level Kill Switch Protocol
  • Application-level Kill Switch Protocol

A system-level kill switch completely blocks the internet connection to your device until a VPN connection is restored. By doing so, it prevents IP address leaks and maintains your online security.

An application-level kill switch blocks the internet connection for specific apps in your device. It is a more flexible protocol and grants users total control of how it works. Consider a VPN service with an automatic kill switch feature if you want to browse the internet anonymously.

Has Up-to-Date Encryption Standards

The latest encryption algorithm is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 256-bit, used for heavy-duty encryption.

It is extremely difficult to decrypt any message encoded by the algorithm. Many U.S. government agencies and other leading organizations in the world use this algorithm.

The AES 256-bit algorithm has a perfect forward secrecy feature that regularly changes encryption keys for maximum security. It is advisable to determine the mode of encryption used by major VPN providers before settling for one provider. With 256-bit AES encryption, you’re secured against different forms of cyber-attacks that may compromise your online security.

Has Robust RAM-Only Servers

A VPN with RAM-only servers runs on a volatile memory, meaning that only the Random Access Memory (RAM) stores data.

In this kind of setup, the hard disk does not store any data.

As a result, the user data is completely wiped off when the server reboots or is no longer functioning.

Before you commit to a particular VPN service, it is advisable to opt for one with RAM-only servers or has plans to upgrade its infrastructure to meet such requirements.

Such a feature ensures VPN providers adhere to their no-log policy while providing enhanced security for the end-user. 

Has Advanced VPN Protocols

The best VPN protocol currently is either the IKEv2 or OpenVPN protocol.

The widely-used OpenVPN protocol is based on OpenSSL and SSLv3/TLSv1 protocols. But on the flip side, it does not work on Mac OS or iOS.

IKEv2 is relatively faster compared to OpenVPN and works on Mac OS and iOS.

It is based on IPSec protocol and best used in smartphones. For best results, consider a  VPN service with either protocol to ensure your data stays safe.

Are Private Browsing and VPNs Really Secure?

Private browsing is a mode in popular browsers that creates a temporary browsing session separate from the normal session. When browsing in private mode, the browser does not store your browsing history.

As a result, other users (individuals using the same device) won’t see your browsing history.

Also, the cookies, site data, website permissions, and information entered in online forms disappear when you exit private mode. For instance, some antivirus software have a private browsing feature that blocks other sites from gathering information about you.

Even so, bear in mind that private browsing does not guarantee total anonymity. Your internet traffic might still be visible to the websites you visit or sign in to, including ISP, search engines, and the owner of the network you’re using, e.g., school or employer.

 

How To Stay Private While Browsing the Internet in Private/Incognito Mode

Consider these tips to enhance your privacy when browsing the internet in incognito mode.

Limit Data and App Permissions

You can stay private online by limiting data and permissions offered to specific applications on your device. For instance, you can deny websites access to cookies as you browse the internet, preventing them from tracking your online activity.

Do Not Provide Your Real Information In Unofficial Forms

Other than government, medical, work, or school-related forms, you may input fake information or a disguised email address to fill forms on the internet, such as marketing, surveys, feedback, etc. This prevents the site owners from knowing who you are and easily tracking you down later.

Use Extensions To Block Ads and Trackers

You can use various browser addons to block sites from tracking you. Here are some examples:

HTTPS Everywhere: This is an open-source browser add-on that encrypts communication on major websites by switching from the less secure "HTTP" to secure "HTTPS" application layer protocol.

uBlock Origin: Also an open-source browser add-on, it helps in content filtering and blocking ads, malware sites, and trackers.

Privacy Badger: This is a free cross-platform browser add-on created to protect users from non-consensual tracking by advertisers and other third-party trackers.

Ghostery: A free security-related browser add-on used to remove bugs and beacons embedded in websites that allow the collection of users’ data.

Turn Off the Location Feature on Your Device

Go to the location privacy settings on your device and then deny apps from accessing your location. This prevents applications from sending ads based on your geographical location.

Note that browsing in private mode does not hide your IP address, online activity, and location from your ISP. The Downloads folder in your device stores all the downloaded files while on private browsing. Therefore, anyone with access to your device can still see or open the downloaded files.

Lastly, your browser saves all bookmarks created during a private browsing session under the bookmarks tab. It’s evident that private browsing is not as secure as it seems, given that it does not hide vital information, such as IP address. Third-parties can still identify users on private browsing mode and exploit their information.

Private Browsing While Still Connected to a VPN

Connecting to a VPN while private browsing is actually one of the safest ways to surf the internet. The VPN routes internet traffic around the VPN server while private mode hides browsing history from other users that can access your device.

You’re assured of complete internet privacy if you connect to a premium VPN service that keeps no logs while simultaneously using the private browsing mode.

Using a VPN adds a new layer of security and hides your IP address. The only thing that private browsing does is hide internet traffic from other users, but your IP address will still be visible and traceable back to you. On the other hand, a VPN service encrypts all your internet traffic, something that’s not possible while using private browsing mode.

If you want total internet privacy while surfing the internet in private mode, you need to use a VPN. Also, using private mode does not guarantee zero access to your browsing history. Anyone with advanced tech knowledge can still access your private mode browsing history since it’s stored in a DNS cache.

DNS cache is a temporary storage of all recently accessed hostnames and other internet domains. To be safe while browsing in private mode, you need to clear or flush the DNS cache. Otherwise, tech-savvy individuals can still find out the sites you visited while using private mode.

VPNs use encrypted DNS servers to prevent snoopers from accessing your address requests. Even though VPNs don’t block cookies, the cookie owner won’t know where you’re connecting from or what you’re doing on the internet.

Using private mode to surf the internet only gives a false sense of security. It’s advisable to use a premium VPN service when browsing either in normal mode or private mode for enhanced internet security. This is because private/incognito mode only operates at the application layer while VPNs operate at the transport layer.

Operating at the application layer means that private browsing is limited to hiding information such as temporary cache, history, and cookies. On the other hand, VPNs operating at the transport layer can hide data by providing an alternative network interface different from what ISPs use. Therefore, your IP address and online activity can be hidden from intruders.

Also, you can’t bypass restrictions or access geo-restricted content when surfing the internet on private mode since organization firewalls still remain effective. The only advantage that free browsing mode has over a VPN service is that it’s free to use. Follow the steps below to browse on private mode while still connected to a VPN service:

  • Download a premium VPN and register an account.
  • Launch the VPN service and sign in.
  • Connect to your preferred remote server.
  • When connected, launch your browser and click on private/incognito mode. You can find incognito mode by clicking on the three dots at the top right corner of the browser or pressing Command+Shift+N on a Mac.

While private browsing erases your digital footprints on browser level, a VPN service does the same for your whole connection. By doing so, you enjoy the best of both worlds (VPN + private mode browsing). However, note that if you’re using a VPN browser extension or add-on, some VPNs may not work and your IP address may be visible to the outside world during private browsing mode.

Instead of using a private browsing mode on regular browsers such as Chrome and Firefox, you can opt for encrypted browsers such as TOR and Vivaldi. Using encrypted browsers while connected to a VPN service is more secure than using a regular browser private/incognito mode. It is not advisable to use encrypted browsers without a VPN since they do not encrypt traffic flowing to or from other web apps in your device, which can lead to IP address leaks.

What Happens When You Connect to the VPN?

VPNs make web requests on your behalf through VPN servers. When you connect to a VPN service and access a website, your ISP knows you’re connected to the internet but can’t know which specific website you’re browsing. The VPN creates an encrypted virtual tunnel between your device and the internet and sends your data to an external server.

Then, your data is decrypted by the external server and sent from the VPN server to your destination. You’ll receive a reply from your destination, and the reply or data traffic is then encrypted by the VPN server and sent back to you. The VPN decrypts the data received, making it understandable for the end-user.

Your web traffic information and metadata, including IP address, can’t be accessed by an ISP or other prying eyes in the entire process. Your ISP can only notice you’re connected to a VPN but can’t figure out what you’re doing online. A VPN’s sole job is to shield your internet traffic from ISPs and other third parties.

ISP and Government Tracking

If you connect to the internet without a VPN, governments and ISPs can check your online activity and IP address to know your identity and location. On the other hand, using a VPN masks your IP address and prevents governments and ISPs from identifying or tracing you. You can even use a VPN to access restricted social media sites and online streaming services banned by the government or other institutions, such as schools.

Are VPNs Hackable?

Surprisingly, VPNs can be hacked. A hacker can conduct cryptographic attacks to break the encryption and recover plain text, although the process is so difficult and may take years to break the encryption even using supercomputers.

Hackers can breach a VPN service either by stealing the encryption key or breaking the VPN service’s encryption system.

Stealing the encryption key is relatively easier than breaking the encryption system.

Hackers can also try to guess the encryption key by using a brute force attack or dictionary attack.

VPN providers enhance their security by making their encryption complex, regularly checking firewall ports, blocking weak points, and analyzing past attacks. Therefore, choosing the right VPN provider is vital if you want to keep your data safe.

Data Center Concerns

VPNs use data centers to offer cybersecurity on a global scale and provide quality services. Data centers play a critical role in managing VPN services, which demand the highest security standards.

For instance, there were many concerns raised when a NordVPN data center in Finland was breached.

NordVPN took action and closed down the compromised data center to maintain its users’ data integrity. Although such cases are rare, they do happen. 

Can You Be Tracked if You Use a VPN?

You can not be easily tracked if you’re using a VPN service because it changes your IP address and encrypts online activity. However, if you install malware to your device, it’s possible to be tracked even if you’re using a VPN.

You are more secure online when using a VPN. To take this security a notch higher, it is always advisable to opt for a premium VPN service. Avoid using free VPNs; they sell users data to third parties.

Before selecting a particular VPN provider, ensure you read their no-log policies and understand the type of logs they collect. Also, ensure they use advanced VPN protocols and up-to-date encryption standards. When you compare the cost of a premium VPN to the amount of damages hackers can cause to your device and yourself as well, there is no doubt that a premium VPN is the cheaper option. Get yourself a premium VPN today and browse the internet safely!

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