A virtual private network (VPN) is a great way to enhance online privacy and keep your business activity and personal information safe. But not all VPNs are created equally, and no VPN is entirely bulletproof.
Read on for help deciding which VPN will best protect you and your business. We share some essential information about encryption, hackers, and more.
- A VPN lets you send and receive information securely, even when connected to a public network.
- VPN uses an algorithm to encrypt your data, but some hackers find ways around encryption.
- A business can protect its data in various ways, such as by keeping its software current and enabling a firewall.
- You can verify a VPN is secure by checking the logging policies, noting where the company is based, and more.
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.
Typically, 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 both the request and the response received and could, in theory, intercept that information or inject bad data in the middle of the interaction.
How a VPN encrypts your information
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 go-between. Now 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.
The VPN protects your activity so any hacker or malicious actor on the same network as you will not be able to see the information transmitted to and from your device. It also obscures your internet protocol (IP) address, which shields you from remote attacks and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Because the hackers don’t have your IP address, they cannot target you to attack your device or flood you with traffic that could crash your connection.
How Does VPN Encryption Work?
VPNs work because of encryption, which effectively makes data unreadable. A VPN uses an algorithm to encrypt your data, turning it into an indecipherable mess. Anyone intercepting it would only see a scramble of letters and numbers. VPNs might use various encryption protocols, all seeking to accomplish the same task: keeping your data secure.
On an unsecured connection, your data may be transmitted in plaintext. This is readable data that anyone on your network can see.
How Do Hackers Circumvent Encryption?
While good encryption protects your data and prevents hackers from gaining access, it is not bulletproof. There are several ways that a hacker could theoretically circumvent encryption and gain access to your data.
Breaking the encryption barrier
A hacker could first access your data by breaking the encryption. While most VPNs today use encryption that would take 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 would be extremely time-consuming and require lots of computing power, but it is technically possible.
Stealing company keys
Another way hackers might circumvent encryption is by stealing the keys. This technique has little to do with you and everything to do with the company responsible for the VPN service. If its security is lax in any way, it is possible that hackers could break into the systems and gain access to the key that allows the VPN server to decrypt data.
As with just about anything in the world of online security, the weakest link is humans. If a VPN provider has created a network with an easy-to-exploit vulnerability or one of its employees becomes compromised, hackers may be able to access the information needed to get past encryption and gain access to your data.
Unless you are doing high-profile or high-value work, you will unlikely be directly targeted in an attack like this. However, if a VPN service becomes a target and you use it, you may become a victim of such an attack, even if it is collateral.
How Can a Business Protect Its Data?
On top of using a VPN, several simple steps exist to secure your data further.
- Keep your software up-to-date. When you see an update available for the software you use, including your VPN, download and install the update as soon as possible. These are typically issued to fix known flaws and bugs that could be exploited, and 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 may be limited. But at home, you can protect your data by securing your internet connection. Password-protect your router and ensure no one can access your wireless network without your permission.
- Enable your firewall. These security systems between your computer and network prevent unauthorized requests from getting through. Firewalls aren’t perfect, but they create an extra layer of security a hacker would have to subvert before gaining access to your device.
- Use anti-virus protection. Hackers may try to access your information by injecting malware or other malicious software onto your device. Anti-virus software knows how to 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 can be tricky because while all promise to keep you safe online, many options fall short of what you should expect. While there is no surefire way to guarantee your VPN will be 100% safe, these things typically indicate it is secure:
- Consider where the company is headquartered. A VPN based in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, or New Zealand is subject to the Five Eyes Intelligence-sharing arrangement between those countries. You may be subject to government surveillance if it is based in China. Consider these risks when selecting your VPN.
- Look for protective security features. A VPN can’t guarantee protection, but it can include extra security features. A killswitch will cut 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.
- Check on any past problems. If a VPN has had problems, it could suggest 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.
Frequently Asked Questions About VPN Safety
What is the safety of using a VPN?
A VPN is only as secure as the company running it. While it may have solid protocols and military-grade encryption, it still can’t prevent cookie tracking, viruses, or malware or protect against phishing scams. Data leaks can happen.
What are some disadvantages of using a VPN?
With a VPN, you may experience slower internet speeds, increase your data usage, lose access to some websites, and have extra expenses.
Is it safe to use a free VPN?
In many cases, including with VPNs, free services aren’t safe. These services don’t have money to invest in infrastructure or additional safety features. And free VPNs can compromise your security by collecting and selling your data or bombarding you with ads.
When should you avoid using a VPN?
Turning your VPN off when accessing local sites or devices, such as streaming platforms or a printer, is best.