How secure is a VPN?

How secure a VPN is depends on protocols, encryption algorithms, and VPN features. When you connect to a VPN (virtual private network) server, your traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel between your device and a destination website. This way, your internet service provider (ISP), snoopers, and sites you visit cannot see your real IP address or access your browsing habits and history. 

But how secure is a VPN, really? To figure that out, 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 elements go into the inner workings of a VPN. But it all happens in the blink of an eye.

What you don’t see (read: what really happens when you connect to a VPN):

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A DNS request is made
The secret keys are made
A secure channel is created
VPN protocols encrypt your data

What you do see (read: the benefits you get):

  • Anything you do on the internet goes through an encrypted VPN tunnel, meaning your browsing activity belongs only to you. Your ISP, the 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).
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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 like gibberish to any onlooker. Here’s an example:

a VPN secures your internet connection, making the information you send out unreadable

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?

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 countless examples of these apps and looking over their privacy policies and ownership (which often traces back to China). One extensive analysis found that around 75% of free VPN apps in the Google Play store have tracking embedded in their source code. That doesn’t sound good now, does it? If you’re being tracked through an app promising you privacy and security, it defeats its primary purpose.

And that’s not all. The development and maintenance of a VPN requires a lot of resources. The software needs constant supervision, not to mention keeping up with security trends and challenges. That’s why paying 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 the 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 their consent. Data is the hottest currency of our time, and you never know who might get ahold of it.

Now that you know what not to choose, let’s go over what you should choose.

VPN features that keep 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 traffic. 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, ISPs have access to your browsing history and can sell that information to third parties. Choose a VPN that offers private DNS on each server, thus 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 as well as server infrastructure. They concluded that “the Surfshark maintainers have a clear understanding of security and privacy challenges associated with being a VPN provider”.

Similar audits give legitimacy to a VPN, so make sure to look out for those.

Is Surfshark safe? 

Yes, Surfshark is safe. On top of our audits, we offer all the features you need to look for in a safe VPN: we use military-grade encryption, updated protocols, and 100% RAM-only servers. We also have a strict no-logs policy. All of these options and more ensure that your privacy and security are always our first priority. 

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 to even 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, usually referred to as stealing the key. This happens when a hacker finds a piece of information that can encode or decode data. 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.

So can you get hacked with VPN on?

Technically yes, but VPN hacks aren’t common or easy to accomplish. If you use a good premium VPN, there’s almost no chance your security will be compromised. The hoops that the hackers have to jump through to accomplish it make it not worth the hassle. And at the end of the day, you’ll always be far more secure online with a VPN than without it.

Leave your security to us

A VPN is an essential tool when it comes to internet security. Although it cannot make you completely safe and you should always stay vigilant, it’s a lot better than no protection at all. Just make sure you choose a reliable provider with rock-solid encryption algorithms and advanced protocols. 

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