Are VPNs secure? Unfortunately, many trusted providers are not that secure
Not so long ago, the Internet was for us nothing more than an interesting curiosity. Today, though, it’s fair to say that it plays a role in nearly every aspect of our lives. It has brought a whole new level of comfort and utility in the palm of our hands.
But despite all the benefits that the Internet brings, it also brings risks. And to protect ourselves from various online threats, many of us are considering VPN technology or have already turned to it.
On paper, VPNs seem like a perfect tool for the job. They encrypt and anonymize our data, keeping it safe and away from prying eyes.
However, in practice, are VPNs secure? Things are definitely a little complicated.
When you use a VPN, you are handing over your traffic to a third party (VPN provider), and you trust that they will not invade your privacy. This makes being careful when choosing a VPN provider. If you choose wrong, you could end up switching one privacy nightmare for another.
So let’s take a look at the threats to your online privacy, and how you can select a trustworthy VPN service to avoid.
To VPN or not to VPN
The most obvious criminal threats on the Internet. Thieves often go to great lengths to steal and take advantage of user data such as login credentials, personally identifiable information, and credit card numbers.
But criminals are not alone in trying to get your information into their own hands. Internet privacy protections are falling back in many countries (assuming they exist at all).
Internet service providers and data collection
You would be surprised to know how much data your average Internet Service Provider (ISP) collects about its users. And they love to do that, too. Some go so far as to offer discounted rates if you agree they are spying on you (details that are well placed in fine print).
Why do we collect all this information? To sell it to the highest bidder, of course. It is a very profitable business model.
The data that IPS may collect about you and that it may collect about you can include any of the following:
From this information, your ISP can develop a shockingly accurate picture of you.
For example, they can create a partial medical profile based on the diseases you read information about or the medical services you are looking for.
They may be able to know your gender and approximate age based on the types of websites you visit often.
They may even learn about your political leanings, sexual orientation, or any other personality trait that shows through your online behavior.
And perhaps most terrifyingly, you can’t even audit the data collected, at least, to verify its accuracy.
How VPNs can protect you
When you use a VPN, you leave your ISP in the dark. A VPN creates an encrypted connection (or tunnel) between your device and a server controlled by the VPN provider.
But by default, all your internet traffic will pass through this tunnel. As long as this is the case, your ISP will not be able to find out anything about your online activities.
Everything is encrypted and routed through the VPN server. Therefore, your ISP will not know where the data is going, where it came from, or what it contains.
As mentioned, this only shifts the burden of trust away from the ISP to the VPN service. If you don’t end up using a trusted VPN provider, you’re just switching who gets to use your personal information, and nothing else.
Why is a trustworthy VPN provider important
When you use a VPN service to protect yourself from your ISP or other unauthorized third party, you trust that the VPN is not like them. You trust that they will not log or track your internet traffic or sell your online habits or personal information to anyone willing to pay for it.
In fact, since every VPN provider requires you to sign in to use one of their servers, you explicitly mark your traffic as your own. If a VPN service decides to categorize your activities, things can get more complicated.
The sad truth is that there are always dishonest VPN providers out there, looking to make money from uninformed users. Anytime there is a fear of privacy, they appear in the market in droves.
Failing to choose a VPN provider carefully can leave you in a much worse position than you started out in, and can jeopardize your privacy and security in a whole new way.
How safe and secure is a VPN
Let’s first set aside the policies and behaviors of individual service providers.
The technology behind most commercial VPN services is very sound and provides excellent protection for your security and privacy.
In general, a properly set up VPN makes it impossible for an unauthorized person or organization to analyze your internet traffic and associate any activity with you again.
It is important to remember that a VPN will only encrypt the data between your device and the VPN server. Once this server leaves to travel to its final destination, it becomes as vulnerable to interception as any non-VPN traffic.
However, at this point, the VPN server is the source of the traffic. It would be very difficult for anyone to trace it (and any activity conducted online) to you.
What to look for in a secure VPN
So, from a technology point of view, a VPN is secure. But since the privacy and security offered by its provider can be easily undermined, choosing a reputable and transparent VPN service is crucial.
If you fail to do so, you defeat the whole purpose of paying for a VPN service for privacy and security. You’re throwing money down the drain.
There is a list of things you should look out for to make sure that a VPN will give you the best level of protection. First of all, any provider you are considering should offer these technical features:
When all these features are available, you get a powerful and secure VPN service that offers maximum flexibility and broad compatibility. At least from a technology standpoint, that is.
Once you find such a provider, you must then turn your attention to the company and its various policies that may have an impact on your security and privacy. Make sure you have all of the following:
When a VPN provider checks all of these boxes, on top of meeting all of the technical requirements, there is an excellent chance that the data will be in safe hands with them.
Having said that, don’t always take their word for it. Read on further and see if you can find cases where the provider didn’t follow their policies or was found to be collecting data they said they didn’t follow.
If you want a good starting point, services like CyberGhost, NordVPN, and Surfshark are options I personally use and trust.
Are Free VPNs Safe
It is not easy to find a free VPN service that is safe and secure and that fulfills the requirements I covered above (which, in my opinion, are essential). But a lot of people use it anyway.
Most free VPNs make bold claims about the security features and levels of anonymity they give. But, almost no one lives up to them.
The simple truth is that servers and bandwidth cost money. A “free” VPN should cover these costs in some way, and selling your personal information and online habits can be surprisingly profitable (more than any form of advertising revenue, which is another common source of income for free VPNs).
Several well-known free VPN services have already been exposed as unsecure and lenient with their data collection practices.
For example, Hola was caught red-handed selling VPN users’ bandwidth to third parties. Their software even contains a flaw that allows an attacker to gain complete control over a user’s device.
Betternet, a widely used free mobile VPN service, is found to have as many as 14 individual tracking libraries built into their apps. It could be said that using Betternet was worse for your privacy than not using any form of protection at all.
Personally, I would always choose a paid VPN over a free VPN. With a few exceptions that I can count on on the one hand, I consider every free VPN to be questionable at best, if not downright dangerous. Maybe I’m in the minority, but when you can get a quality service provider like Surfshark or CyberGhost for just a few bucks a month, for me, the decision is a no-brainer.
Choose wisely, stay safe
Choosing a reliable, secure, and trustworthy VPN is no small feat and has consequences if you go wrong. Using a VPN service puts all your internet activity and data in their hands. In some cases, it can be worse than trusting your ISP.
Follow the tips in this article to find an honest service provider with high standards of security and privacy. Spend some time researching.
There are many secure VPNs out there that will likely do everything in their power to protect you and your data. Using one of them is arguably the best any of us netizens can do.