How secure is VPN

4 min

The Internet offers practically infinite possibilities for socialization, entertainment, and finding information. With it also came new threats and countermeasures against them. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is one of the most commonly applied methods to protect your online activity. But how secure is a VPN connection, really? Security is a serious matter, so don’t get misled by colorful online banners. Here we deal with the question comprehensively.

Security, privacy, and anonymity

If you are to truly understand your online safety, then you need to know the difference between those basic terms. Many commercials use them somewhat interchangeably, which could be misleading. 

Security is protecting yourself from harm. In the virtual world, this means safeguarding any data that could be used against you. Examples of such unlawful use of data include stealing money, compromising confidential information, or damaging reputation. That’s why it is crucial to secure online banking and online payment systems. Medical and entrepreneurship data are also obvious cases. Your private activities deserve protection, too. Giving out too much information to the wrong people can cause serious stress and anxiety.

Privacy is keeping whatever you deem fit for yourself and people of your own choice. For example, private browsing mode keeps websites from leaving some traces on your computer. Violating your privacy does not necessarily cause any damage (like when someone has access to your correspondence but doesn’t do anything with it). It is still a violation, though. When sharing any information about yourself online, you willingly give up a part of your privacy, and that is natural.

Anonymity, in turn, is about hiding who you are. While browsing online, you often leave behind far more virtual tracks than you’d expect. Those could be used to identify you as a person. Anonymity is vital when freedom of speech is at stake, as it prevents anyone from finding out who authored certain statements.

Having the main security terms cleared out, let’s get straight to the point of whether VPN is safe. That’s a little too general, so let’s rephrase it:

How does VPN protect me?

By its very principle, every VPN channels data transfer between your device and a VPN provider’s server. The primary reason is to hide your real IP address and replace it with a fake one – that of the VPN server. This is a way to avoid geolocation, as the IP is linked to your geographical location. This is a basic privacy and security feature only. You need to take a closer look at a specific service to assess how secure is a VPN really.

Principle of online safety: encryption

While researching VPN security, you must have come across the concept of encryption. It is an algorithm, ideally rendering any input impossible to decipher. There is a wide range of such mathematical procedures. A commonly used and accepted one is called AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). Encryption is a typical feature of a reliable VPN. Thanks to it, your data is not only redirected but also protected. Even when fully intercepted by a potential attacker, it is unreadable.

Now, you could think of it as redundant. HTTPS protocol also protects your confidential data. It is increasingly prevalent, used by every respectable web service. Hence, the confidential data you enter into a browser ought to be safe: passwords, credit card numbers, personal details, email contents. But there can be exceptions. Some services switch back to faster, unencrypted HTTP protocol when not dealing with sensitive data. Some are still not encrypted by default. Others could simply contain vulnerabilities. Choose an encrypted VPN to add an extra layer of security, regardless of whether another one works perfectly or not at all.

A kill switch: protection in case of failure

This is a relatively small, but crucial feature. No system in existence is perfect. Faults do happen from time to time, so any network connection can fail. That includes the VPN tunnel leading to the server or even the server itself. There can be basically two distinct consequences of a sudden VPN connection error:

  1. Switching to a normal, unprotected mode, as if a VPN application was intentionally disabled.
  1. Shutting down your web link to prevent any unprotected activity.

The second option might look extreme, but it actually increases VPN security. When online safety is your priority, then it’s better safe than sorry. An automatic shutdown is necessary because it gives you time to make a decision. You can either wait for the tunnel to be restored or turn the VPN off (after which you browse at your own risk).

What a VPN cannot do

Even the most secure VPN does not guarantee absolute secrecy. Legally operating companies still need to obey local laws. Some governments, for example, obligate IT administrators to store certain logs even for several years. This could be used by law enforcement in investigations. If you’re that sensitive regarding your privacy, check the registration country of a given provider. Its policy could potentially affect your privacy.

The mentioned AES standard is proven to be virtually impossible to break. Still, software using IT could contain flaws or vulnerabilities. Those are typically quickly fixed by responsible authors in updates or patches. Pay attention to always having the latest stable VPN app version.

When wondering how secure is using a VPN, remember the distinction between privacy and anonymity. You don’t want to protect yourself too much. When posting content online, you first log on to the social media platform. There, you voluntarily publish whatever you wish to, limiting your anonymity. Therefore, there is no point in increasing privacy where you don’t want to keep everything private.

Security of residential VPN

Popular VPN servers are placed in data centers. This simplifies maintenance and lowers costs. Such datacenter VPN tunnels can be bought in bulk. Popularity causes large online companies to be capable of learning about them. If you use such a server, known to be a VPN provider, then you could get partially exposed. Your IP would still be cloaked, but the target website can recognize that you’re using a VPN. Some of them will react by blocking you. This is either to prevent circumventing geo-blocking or a more serious matter. Many illegal online activities are being “hidden” with such cheap VPNs. Cautious web pages protect themselves by blocking traffic from such suspicious data centers.

Residential VPN is based on a different principle. All its users agree to participate in a pool of shared IP addresses. Any address can be used by another user instead of his/her real IP. They remain authentic, private IPs, for example of someone’s household. Hence the name ‘residential VPN’. There is no reason to treat them with suspicion, so they won’t be blocked. This greatly increases privacy and anonymity. Just remember, the tradeoff is that your IP will be used for unknown reasons by another VPN user.

In order for a VPN to enhance your online security, you need to understand its principles. Choose your provider with care, remembering that nothing comes absolutely free. Paying with money might be a better option than risking privacy in the name of hiding your location.

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