A virtual private network or VPN is a great way to enhance your privacy online and keep your business activity and personal information safe. But not all VPNs are created equally, and no VPN is entirely bulletproof.
You’ll need to understand the following questions we answer below to help you decide which VPN will best protect you and your business:
- What is a VPN?
- How does VPN encryption work?
- How do hackers circumvent encryption?
- How can a company protect its data?
- How can you verify a VPN is secure?
What Is a VPN?
A VPN is a privacy tool that allows your device to send and receive information securely, even while connected to a public network.
Your phone or computer communicates with a website or app by sending a request and receiving a response. When this happens over a public network, that data is transmitted in a way that can be seen.
Someone with access to the network can see the request being sent and the response being received and could, in theory, intercept that information or inject bad data in the middle of the interaction.
With a VPN, those communications are made private. The VPN creates an encrypted connection between your device and a private, secure server that serves as your secure go-between.
When your device sends information, it is obscured by the encrypted tunnel and sent to the remote server, which communicates with the website or app for you. The same thing happens when it receives information back: The server gets it first, then sends it to your device through a secure connection.
A VPN protects your activity so hackers or malicious actors on the same network as you cannot see the information transmitted to and from your device.
It also obscures your IP address, shielding you from remote attacks and distributed denial of service attacks.
Because the hackers don’t have your IP address, they cannot target you to attack your device or flood you with traffic that crashes your connection.
How Does VPN Encryption Work?
VPNs work because of encryption, which effectively scrambles data to make it unreadable.
On an unsecured connection, your data is transmitted in plaintext. This is readable data that anyone who is on your network can conceivably see.
A VPN uses an algorithm to encrypt your data, turning it into an indecipherable mess. If anyone were to intercept it, they would only see a scramble of letters and numbers.
There are several kinds of encryption protocols that VPNs can use, but they all seek to accomplish the same task: Keeping your data secure.
How Do Hackers Circumvent Encryption?
While good encryption effectively protects your data and prevents hackers from gaining access, it is not bulletproof. There are several ways that a hacker could circumvent encryption and gain access to your data.
Hackers Can Break Encryption
The first way that a hacker gains access to your data is by breaking the encryption. While most VPNs today use a type of encryption that takes thousands of years for an average computer to decrypt, it is theoretically possible that someone could reverse engineer the encryption and gain access to the data.
This is extremely time-consuming and requires a lot of computing power, but it is possible.
Hackers Can Steal Encryption Keys
Another way that hackers circumvent encryption is by stealing the keys. This technique has little to do with you and everything to do with the company responsible for your VPN service.
If their security is lax in any way, hackers could break into their systems and gain access to the key that allows the VPN server to decrypt data.
They Can Exploit Human Error
As with just about anything in the world of online security, the weakest link is human. Suppose a VPN provider creates a vulnerable network that is easy to exploit or one of its employees becomes compromised.
In that case, hackers can access the information needed to circumvent encryption to gain access to your data.
Unless you are doing high-profile or high-value work, it is unlikely that you will be directly targeted in an attack.
However, if a VPN service becomes a target and you use it, you may become a victim of such an attack, even as collateral.
How Can a Business Protect Its Data?
On top of using a VPN, you can take several simple steps to help further secure your data.
- Keep your software up-to-date. When you see an update available for a piece of software that you use, including your VPN, make sure that you download and install the update as soon as possible. Updates are issued to fix known flaws and bugs that hackers can exploit. Staying up-to-date helps to protect your data.
- Use a secure router. If you are out in public, your options for a secure internet connection are limited. But at home, you can take steps to protect your data by making your internet connection secure. Password protect your router and make sure that no one gets access to your wireless network without your permission.
- Enable your firewall. Firewalls are security systems that sit between your computer and your network to prevent unauthorized requests from getting through. Firewalls aren’t perfect, but they create an extra layer of security that a hacker has to subvert before gaining access to your device.
- Use anti-virus protection. Hackers try to gain access to your information by injecting malware or other malicious software onto your device. Anti-virus software can identify and remove these threats when they appear on your computer or phone.
How Can You Verify a VPN Is Secure?
Selecting a secure VPN is tricky because, while all of them promise to keep you safe online, many options fall short of what you should expect from a secure VPN.
While there is no sure-fire way to guarantee that your VPN is 100 percent safe, look for the bullet points below. They help indicate that a VPN is secure:
- Consider where the company is headquartered. If a VPN is based in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, it is subject to the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement. If it is based in China, you may be subject to government surveillance. Consider these risks when selecting your VPN.
- Look for protective security features. A VPN can’t guarantee your protection, but it can include features that provide extra security. A killswitch cuts out your internet connection if you lose connection with your VPN. DNS leak protection keeps your data from being routed to your internet service provider, potentially exposing your activity.
- Look for any past problems. If a VPN has had problems in the past, it suggests that the company has lax security. In some cases, these problems are addressed, and security is improved. In other cases, the issue persists. Keep these issues in mind.
- Know the logging policies. Some VPNs keep logs of user activity that can be traced back to them. This is a red flag if you are worried about protecting your data. Make sure the VPN you choose has a no-logging policy to make sure your data is secure.