The internet is not a secure place – and I’m sure this statement isn’t shocking to you. Malicious agents try to profit from internet users in hundreds of different ways, and even your Internet Service Provider can collect and sell your information to interested parties. No wonder we’ve seen a huge interest in VPNs in the last several years – everyone wants to browse the internet with peace of mind. But how secure are VPNs?
To understand how secure a VPN is, you should understand its operating principles first. What happens when you click Connect? Let’s see.
This is what happens when you connect to a VPN
A lot of components go into the inner workings of a VPN. But it all happens in a blink of an eye.
What you don’t see, aka what really happens when you connect to VPN:
|A DNS request is made||The secret keys are made||A secure channel is created||VPN protocols encrypt your data|
As you can tell, it’s a complicated process, but that’s what it takes to secure users’ data.
What you can see, aka benefits you get:
- Anything you do on the internet goes through an encrypted VPN tunnel, meaning your browsing activity belongs only to you. Your internet service provider (or ISP for short), websites you visit, and hackers monitoring public networks cannot access your now-encrypted data.
- Your real IP address is hidden, and you get a new one. This way, no one can trace it back to you or your actual location. You get secure and private access to geo-blocked websites. That includes unfair censorship or network blocks (e.g., social media, news sites).
Some people also wonder if VPNs can be tracked, and the answer is no. There’s no way to monitor live VPN traffic. However, there are many ways you could be tracked online, and a VPN cannot cover all of them (e.g., doxxing). VPNs minimize your chances of being tracked by a mile, but no software will help if you’re not careful.
In short, a VPN secures your internet connection, making the information you send out unreadable – it literally looks gibberish to any onlooker. Here’s an example:
This particular screenshot is taken from a VPN encryption test by Wireshark. There are no words in plaintext; thus, the data is encrypted!
But what makes it all possible, and ensures there are no mistakes and leaks? Onto the next section.
What does it take to have a secure VPN?
To choose a truly secure VPN, you should consider several things. But before you go scouting for options – and before I go on to talk about VPN features – make sure to keep something in mind:
Free VPNs are not a secure option
The dangers of free VPN services have been proven by testing and analyzing apps, looking over their privacy policies and ownership (which often leads to China). One extensive analysis found that around 75% of free VPN apps in Google Play store have tracking embedded in their source code. That doesn’t sound good, does it? If you’re being tracked through an app promising you privacy and security, it loses its primary purpose.
And not only that. The development and maintenance of a VPN require a lot of resources. The software needs constant supervision, not to mention keeping up with security trends and challenges. That’s why paying for someone to take care of your digital privacy is standard practice.
Free VPNs – like most free apps – are filled with irritating ads that often are extremely targeted on top of being annoying. And if ads are targeted, that means trackers are involved.
Besides ads, free VPN services tend to stay afloat by selling users’ data to third parties without consent. Data is the hottest currency of our times – and you never know who might get a hold of it.
Now that you know what better not to choose, let’s go over what you should choose.
VPN features keeping your connection secure
This is what you should expect from your VPN provider:
- Up-to-date encryption standards. The industry-leading encryption algorithm is AES-256. It would take at least several lifetimes to decrypt a message encoded with this algorithm. This encryption standard also supports Perfect Forward Secrecy, meaning it frequently changes encryption keys to avoid security breaches.
- Robust RAM-only servers. When all VPN servers run on a volatile memory, any information that would usually be stored on a hard drive is immediately wiped off when the server is no longer on. That means much better security for the end-user.
- Strict no-logs policy. When a VPN states that they operate on a strict no-logs policy, it means that they don’t collect your IP address, browsing history, used bandwidth, session information, network traffic, and connection timestamps.
- Advanced VPN protocols. Make sure your VPN provider uses modern protocols to secure your internet connection. The most secure VPN protocol is either IKEv2 or OpenVPN. You can usually choose which one fits your needs better.
- Private DNS & leak protection. Most likely, your DNS provider is your internet service provider. When they operate your DNS, they have access to your browsing history and can sell that information to third parties. Choose a VPN that offers private DNS on each server; this way, ensuring better security.
- Two-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA is an extra step in the log-in process that protects the users from such common hacking attacks as credential stuffing and brute-forcing.
If technical features are not your thing, look for outside proof
Look for legitimate, outside proof that a VPN is secure and worth investing in. That might be various VPN reviewers, tech YouTubers, or independent auditors specializing in security tests.
For example, independent web security testers Cure53 have audited Surfshark’s Chrome and Firefox extensions. They concluded that “the tested applications make a very robust impression and are not exposed to any issues, neither in the privacy nor in the more general security realms.”
Similar audits give legitimacy to a VPN, so make sure to look out for those.
Can hackers break through the VPN shield?
While theoretically, it is possible to break VPN encryption, it’s such a technologically demanding and time-consuming task that, in practice, it’s illogical even to attempt it. Even for the strongest and fastest computers, it would take years upon years to hack an encrypted VPN tunnel.
Besides breaking encryption, there’s another method of hacking into a VPN. And it’s referred to as stealing the key. In practice, this theft is more realistic than finding cracks in encryption. By saying realistic, I don’t mean easy, but it makes sense that this tactic is far more attractive to hackers than spending years on decryption.
To sum up, VPN hacks aren’t common or easy to accomplish. If you use a good premium VPN, you shouldn’t worry about hacking because VPN software engineers put users’ security at the forefront. And at the end of the day, you’ll be far more secure online with a VPN than without it.
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