Once an obscure networking concept, VPNs are now booming. Security concerns about remote work during the pandemic sparked an uptick in VPN usage, which persists beyond the lockdowns. YouTube, podcast, and even Super Bowl ads now tout the fact that VPNs can cloak your identity online and let you stream content as if you were in another country. But are they safe?
Browsing the web can open you up to all kinds of risks, from third-party tracking to malware. VPNs aren’t a silver bullet for online safety and privacy. Here’s what to look for as you consider VPN options.
What is a VPN and what does it do?
A VPN, or virtual private network, is a software tool that masks your public IP address and hides your browsing data by routing your internet traffic through a specially-configured remote server.
A VPN shields your online presence. It protects your internet connection by funneling your data through an encrypted tunnel, inaccessible to potential eavesdroppers, like your internet service provider (ISP) or data brokers, who might otherwise be able to see who you are, where you are, and what you’re up to. In doing so, a VPN can also let you access geo-blocked content, like a streaming service you couldn’t otherwise access because of your location.
But don’t think of a VPN as a covert corner of the internet, or part of the dark web. Surfing with a VPN just means you’re taking a different, more private path to get to the same destination. If the internet was a city, it would be like taking an underground tunnel instead of the road your ISP owns. It’s the same web you’re used to, accessed through a different server.
How safe are VPNs?
VPNs are safe as long as you go through a reliable VPN provider—some are better than others. When you connect through a VPN, your ISP can no longer see your online activity, but your VPN provider still can, because all of your traffic now passes through its servers. You have to trust that your VPN provider isn’t going to misuse your data, like keep unnecessary amounts of it, or sell it to advertisers. Check that their service is truly secure before setting up your VPN. (More tips below.) Otherwise, you might end up inheriting more privacy problems than you set out to solve.
What to keep in mind when using a VPN
While a VPN can hide your IP address and browsing history, there are limits to its protection. Understanding them can help you browse safer and make the most of what VPNs do offer. Here are four things to keep in mind:
- VPNs are not impervious to malware and attacks. Like other software, VPNs are susceptible to malware and online attacks, and once compromised, their security benefits are null. They can’t protect you from phishing scams, spyware, or other viruses, which can harm you and your device.
- Using a VPN doesn’t make you completely untraceable. ISPs and other outsiders may determine that internet traffic is flowing through a VPN service based on its IP address, port number, or deep packet inspection. Some governments, notably China’s, block IP traffic that they determine is routed through a VPN.
- Some countries ban or only allow compromised VPNs. A few countries outlaw or restrict the use of VPNs. Some only allow the use of government-approved services. In Russia, for example, VPNs aren’t technically illegal, and VPN traffic isn’t blocked, but services that provide true privacy and anonymity are banned, which defeats the point of using a VPN. You should assume these governments have the means to enforce these rules, and that using a VPN illegally could carry serious consequences.
- A VPN isn’t a license to carry out nefarious activities. If it’s normally illegal, it’s just as illegal with a VPN. Running criminal activities through a VPN doesn’t suddenly make them permissible, or excuse wrongdoing. If you’re using a VPN to carry out nefarious activities, you’re no longer using your service safely, and your actions could carry heavy consequences.
What to look for when vetting VPNs
VPN security starts with choosing the right service, and there are a few features to consider when trying to determine which VPN is safe to use. If you’re in the market, look for a provider that:
- Charges for their service. With VPNs, you tend to get what you pay for. Using a free service could risk your online security. It makes sense if you think about it: Running a VPN costs money, and because free services don’t directly collect any from you, the user, the VPN provider has to find income elsewhere. Free VPNs might make money by tracking your activity, or by running ads that interrupt your browsing—or worse, ads that contain malware. Paid services, on the other hand, tend to prioritize personal privacy over commercial exploitation. For just a few dollars a month you get high-level security and customer service.
- Doesn’t log your data. When you browse the web you leave behind a trail of crumbs, data, like your personal information, browsing history, and cookies. Choose a VPN provider with a no log policy, which means they don’t collect or sell data passed over their network. Your privacy and anonymity should be safe from everyone, including your VPN provider. Check their terms of service to understand how they handle your information; some keep logs but purge them periodically, others collect data and only disclose it circumstantially. The best services don’t log anything at all.
- Has a kill switch. If your VPN connection suddenly fails or becomes unstable, your internet automatically downgrades to a standard, less-secure connection, which can expose your IP address and browsing data. Reputable VPNs come with a kill switch, which detects sudden downtime and quits any browsers (i.e. Google Chrome) or apps you were using, reducing the chance of data compromise. If you have a VPN, check your settings to ensure this feature is enabled.
- Uses multi-factor authentication. A secure VPN uses multi-factor authentication (MFA) to verify anyone trying to login. This requires you to prove your identity in multiple ways before accessing your VPN. After entering your password you might be asked to enter a separate code sent to your phone or your email, or asked to answer security questions, for instance. MFA makes sure only authorized users can access your VPN to further protect your online activity.
Safest VPNs to use
The safety of a VPN has a lot to do with the quality and reputation of the provider. As a general rule, paid services are safer than free services, although some free VPNs have been proven safe over time. You don’t want to take chances when choosing a provider. Here are a few services, including a trusted free option, with strong track records that fulfill the above-mentioned criteria:
- Bitdefender (premium version included in Neeva Premium membership)
- ExpressVPN (strong privacy, lots of locations, advanced technical options)
- NordVPN (strong privacy, advanced technical options)
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