How does a VPN protect you?

6 min
VPN online protection aspects – explained

Virtual Private Networks are mostly known to those who try to access geo-blocked content. But that wasn’t the primary intention of the technology creators! It was bringing more security to Internet users. The following article deals with the details of this safety technology. Some technical points are brushed out to get the idea of how strong this protection is. Several areas of online safety are explained, as well as how VPN can help in them. If you’ve asked how using a VPN protects me, read and learn!

How does a VPN protect your communications?

A VPN employs one of the so-called tunneling protocols. It is a group of networking solutions that wrap data carried by a different protocol. Using one protocol inside another might seem redundant, but it has many advantages. These include converting between telecommunication standards or improving signal quality. But the crucial benefit of VPN tunneling is encryption. The carried data not only gets transferred but also transformed through a mathematical procedure into illegible gibberish. The applied algorithm is usually AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). It is effectively impervious to any known attack. Simplifying the math, the only way to crack it by force is to guess a key. For a standard 128-bit key, this has an unbelievably small probability: one in 340 billion billion billion billion! The formula is ½128. Even in the most favorable circumstances, and with harnessing a powerful supercomputer, one would have to keep guessing for thousands of years.

A VPN app you install on your device oversees all its online connections. It does all the heavy calculations, ciphering your data. Afterward, it wraps it inside the chosen tunneling protocol and sends it to the VPN server, where it gets decrypted and forwarded to the actual destinations. In the other direction, it works in reverse: the server receives data for you, puts it inside the encryption-protected tunnel, and sends it to your device. Your VPN app decrypts it and presents it to specific programs you’re using. As a result, the VPN tunnel stretches from you to your VPN provider. Hacking attempts on it are futile. Even if you willingly gave that ciphered data to a hijacker, VPN protects you from deciphering anything by impenetrable encryption.

How does a VPN protect confidentiality?

Another crucial feature of any VPN is altering your true IP to a fake one. How does a VPN protect your identity with this trick? All the various servers you connect to when surfing the Internet obviously cannot track you like a person walking the street. They obtain the data sent by you within multiple web requests, like HTTPS messages sent by the browser. Online tracking is trying to deduce that a specific activity is performed by the given Internet user – you. If you are logged out of email and social media, you can still be recognized by your unique IP address. In most cases, it is a permanent number, assigned once by your Internet service provider. Therefore, online entities can link your activities with your address and track you by it. If you’re thinking about stopping using an IP, sorry! It’s impossible, as it is necessary to know the destination of the data transfer. However, VPN protects you from being snooped on by altering the IP. Your true address is hidden within the above-described tunnel. The outside servers you connect with via VPN are presented with the IP of the VPN provider. This makes it impossible to track you with the help of the IP.

Remember that there are several online tracking methods that a VPN doesn’t prevent. If you log on to social media, you voluntarily give up much of your privacy. In return, you are offered the benefits of Facebook/Instagram/YouTube, etc., as well as personalized content. Cookies are also often used to monitor you. Online entities use so-called third-party cookies to gather information about visitors of websites they don’t own but which they cooperate with. Those can be blocked by an advanced browser configuration.

Can a VPN protect you from hackers?

Definitely yes! The aforementioned example concerning AES encryption explained how a VPN protects you from being spied on. The technicalities might be interesting, but what are the actual applications of such safety mechanisms? The answer lies in the security level of the network itself. Home and office Wi-Fi are mostly safe enough because trusted administration runs them, and only a limited group of persons has access. However, public networks are a different story. Available Wi-Fi is a standard service at restaurants, hotels, and airports. Anyone can connect to them, including a hacker looking for vulnerabilities in the server or users’ devices. And the unprotected networks are the least trustworthy. The attacker can even set up his innocent-looking Wi-Fi, which works as a trap for careless Internet users. 

So how does a VPN protect me in such unsafe conditions? With the tunneling protocol. If you use the VPN app, it shields all of your data transfer from prying eyes. Even when intercepted on a hacker’s network, it shall be indecipherable.

Can a VPN protect you from DDoS?

Distributed Denial of Service is a powerful weapon in online attacks. Let’s briefly explain how it works and why it is so dangerous. A denial of service is simply an exceptional situation in any computer system when things go wrong. When a program is facing conditions it wasn’t designed for, it might behave unexpectedly. It might be an intentional attempt to crack a program by putting it in extreme conditions. Such an attack on a server is made by sending enormous amounts of requests, too many to process correctly. A serious kind of attack takes a lot of machines to produce traffic this big. That’s why hackers first gain a level of control over many devices by infecting them with malware. Afterward, innocent-looking private computers act like an army invading a remote server without their owners ever realizing it, hence the name ‘distributed’ denial of service.

DDoS attacks typically target company servers to block them, cause financial losses or make them vulnerable. Private devices can also be targeted. Usually, to perform such an attack, the IP address of the victim is necessary. Here enters the prevention measure: a VPN. If the attacker doesn’t know your true IP already, then the potential attack would omit you and target your provider’s machines instead. And that’s a serious problem because those servers often have state-of-the-art anti-DDoS protections. Too many requests from one source can be recognized as DDoS and blocked.

How does a VPN protect you from your ISP?

Ideally, you should be able to put full trust in your Internet Service Provider. After all, he is responsible for your connection speed and reliability. His administrators theoretically have unlimited access to your data transfer: all your browsing data, video streams, and downloads. Practically it is limited due to the widespread usage of HTTPS protocol. Anyway, the terms of service oblige ISPs not to abuse these privileges. But what exactly has been included in the agreement you’ve signed? And what are the local regulations determining the legally permitted handling of your data? The laws are tricky to understand. ISPs might be able to sell your data for targeted advertising. In some countries, it gets worse, where limited civil rights impose a level of restriction on your freedom.

If you face one of these problems, then VPN is a solution for you. The impenetrable tunnel begins within your device, so your ISP loses free access to your data. All he can determine is the basic parameters of the connection itself, like the fact that you’re using a VPN. This in turn could be a problem for some online entities which ban VPN users. In some countries access to this technology is limited or even illegal. Mostly the reason is to prevent avoiding territorial restrictions of copyright imposed on online content. Hence, not every VPN will work with popular streaming platforms. Those web pages struggle a lot both with local regulations and users trying to go around them.

Can VPN protect you from viruses?

Computer viruses are one of the most widely known dangers lurking in the online world but also one of the least understood. A more general term malware (malicious software) is more appropriate. There are several ways to get your system infected:

  • opening an attachment to spam email;
  • plugging in an infected USB drive;
  • installing an infected software;
  • visiting a malicious website.

Operating systems have extensive security mechanisms, usually backed up by antivirus programs. There are two general ideas on how to go around them. The first is to find and somehow exploit vulnerabilities existing in software installed on your device. Web browsers are the first to attack, as they are the most widely used programs for Internet connectivity. This is one of the reasons why they’re so frequently updated and also why you shouldn’t neglect or postpone pending updates. The second attack method is to trick you – the Internet user – into letting the malware in yourself, for example by carelessly opening a suspicious email attachment. If a criminal manages to break into a webpage, he can alter its behavior to harm the trustful users.

Getting back to the main topic: how does a VPN protect me from viruses? Alas, it doesn’t. Why so? Because the sources of infection are simply beyond its influence. It does not prevent users from any irresponsible behavior. It cannot fix any software glitches in your browsers. Hacked web pages are not VPN’s responsibility, either. So remember that while a VPN adds greatly to your online security, you can never be reckless. Keep your software up to date and think twice before you get scammed!

Now you understand a little more about how the VPN works in practice. It increases your security in unsafe networks. If you’re keen on keeping your privacy, VPN is a must-have. It prevents tracking you by IP and stops your network administrators from taking advantage of your browsing data. As a reasonable Internet user, you also know what perils VPN cannot protect you from. Keep learning and stay safe online!

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