Virtual private networks (VPN) protect a user's public internet connection by encrypting their data, which hides their identity and online activity. If you are concerned about whether VPNs are safe, there is good news: A VPN from a reliable provider is a secure, private way to browse the internet. However, before you invest in one, though, it is crucial that you research your VPN provider to ensure that is truly secure.
Are VPNs safe?
VPNs are safe if you choose a trusted, secure provider. Secure VPNs do not keep logs of a user's browsing history and will likely be transparent about any privacy policies, as well as act in the event of a data leak.
While the right VPN service can protect your web data, you can take additional precautions to reduce the risk of security breaches. For instance, Steven Arndt, president of Silver Linings Technology, recommends setting your browsing preferences to only access websites that use secure transmission protocols like SSL. (URLs that begin with "https://" indicate a secure transmission.)
For businesses that use VPNs, it is critical that you educate employees to ensure they, too, take the necessary steps to protect their data and the company's data.
"You can never overeducate your personnel on how to keep their data safe, whether [they're] working in the office or hanging outside a coffee shop," said Arndt.
What factors and features make a VPN secure?
A truly safe and secure VPN has the following features:
Uses multi-factor authentication (MFA)
MFA requires users to prove their identity in more than one way before accessing the VPN. This may include combinations of passwords or PINs, answers to previously entered security questions, or authentication codes sent to a mobile device or email. This additional step helps boost security by ensuring only authorized users are accessing the VPN. While cybercriminals may be able to easily gain access to a password, MFA adds a second level of authentication, which makes hacking that much harder.
Disguises your IP address
Ideally, a VPN should disguise or hide your IP address so others can't view your web activity. While security flaws can sometimes reveal your IP location, the most secure VPN providers work to prevent leaks. Online reviews can shed light on whether the provider has a history of leaks and, if so, what they did to rectify the problem.
Doesn't collect or log any information passed over the network
The most secure VPNs will be "no-log," which means the network doesn't collect information sent through the network. This includes personal details, downloads, accessed sites and the search history. A no-log VPN ensures that your online privacy and anonymity are protected from everyone, including the provider itself. Even if a hacker does get into the VPN, there would be little to no information to access.
Before paying for and using a VPN, you should check the provider's terms of service to see if they log information passed over the network (and if so, how it is handled). Some providers may keep logs but purge them periodically. Others may collect information and only disclose it in certain circumstances.
Has a kill switch
In the event your VPN connection drops, the internet access downgrades to a regular, less-secure connection, which can lead to your IP address and browsing data being exposed, making you vulnerable to attack. Secure VPNs come with a kill switch, which automatically quits preselected programs if the connection becomes unstable. (Note that while many VPNs offer a kill switch, they may revert to "off" by default. Check your settings to ensure that this option is enabled.)
How do VPNs work?
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between a user's device and a remote server operated by the VPN service. The user's internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, masking their true IP address. The individual's identity, location, data and browsing history are all hidden from cybercriminals, network operators and even their own internet service provider (ISP).
VPNs offer many benefits for both personal and business use. Individual consumers may opt for a personal VPN to protect their data from prying eyes, especially if they are using public Wi-Fi to access the internet. They might also use a VPN to spoof their physical location, allowing them to view region-locked content, such as websites and streaming video.
Businesses, on the other hand, often use VPNs to enable server access for remote employees or across multiple offices. A business VPN allows teams to access and use programs and files on a dedicated office server, regardless of their physical location, while protecting valuable company data.
While VPNs can increase internet privacy, they do not control all aspects of security. Ideally, a reliable VPN should be used with additional security measures, such as firewall software and antivirus protection.
"One without the others will leave holes in the security in the business," explained Peter Nelson, senior security engineer at Stern Security. "A VPN will not protect against viruses, restrict access from the internet or protect internal resources."
What are the security risks of a VPN?
Unreliable VPNs can jeopardize your safety online. While some free VPNs are safe for use, others lack the tools necessary to fully protect your data, or worse, they include features that are detrimental to security. On the other hand, many premium VPNs have measures in place to mitigate these potential security issues.
Whether you opt for a free or premium network, it's important to understand the risks associated with non-secure VPNs. [If you're still unsure, read this article for some alternatives to VPNs.]
Compromises user security
A VPN's primary purpose is to protect a user's data. Some VPNs, however, contain bugs that leave devices susceptible to viruses and malware. Advertising-related malware is a particularly pernicious issue with free VPNs, which rely on advertising for revenue. Many premium VPNs do not have this problem, as they provide built-in ad blockers, malware protection and unlimited bandwidth.
Tracks online activity
While VPNs are designed to protect privacy over the internet, most free VPNs embed third-party trackers in their software to gather data on a user's online activity. Some VPN providers hide this information, while others disclose it in their privacy policies. This issue is significantly less prevalent in premium VPNs, meaning that a paid program typically offers the privacy protection it promises.
Targets users with ads
VPNs that use third-party trackers often do so to sell users' personal data to advertising partners. Despite the intended privacy of a VPN, individuals might receive targeted ads based on their usage data. Generic pop-up ads are also seen commonly in free VPNs, which require ad revenue from their user base. These ads are not only frustrating, but they can lead to internet or device performance issues. Premium VPNs often have ad-blocking tools, as well as additional security features to prevent this issue.
Slows down internet speeds
Free or low-quality VPNs may struggle to manage internet bandwidth, particularly if they have many users online at once, resulting in slow internet speeds. This effect is amplified for VPNs that display ads during use. Some free VPNs deliberately reduce internet speeds to encourage users to upgrade to a paid plan.
Free VPNs often limit data for users by establishing data caps per month or per browsing session, or even by granting access to certain websites. For those who want to protect their data or hide their location regularly or for an extended period of time, we recommend that you opt for a premium VPN.
Safe VPN recommendations
A secure VPN can make all the difference between protecting your online data or leaving it vulnerable to attack. Here are five safe VPN providers we recommend:
HMA is a user-authenticated VPN that provides high speeds and uninterrupted connections to over 800 servers in 182 countries. Upon login, you are offered a choice of local servers, as well as information indicating the current traffic load on each. In addition to standard encryption, the service offers additional anonymizing tools, including an IP anonymizer that allows for fully untraceable posting of links to internet forums.
PureVPN is compatible with nearly every internet-connected device, including Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, Windows and BlackBerry. The proxy software uses government-grade 256-bit encryption, which is highly secure, but may offer slightly reduced internet speed. You have a choice as to which VPN connection you want to use, including OpenVPN, PPTP and L2TP. PureVPN can be used on five devices simultaneously, which is higher than the typical number of two devices.
CyberGhost is one of the most user-friendly VPN options, with easy-to-install software and an intuitive user dashboard, as well as 256-bit encryption. You can run up to five devices simultaneously on one account. Although the company keeps usage logs, it separates your usage from personal data, ensuring that your browsing cannot be traced back to you. CyberGhost additionally has its own security technique called anti-fingerprinting, rather than the typically used SSL or TSL.
IPVanish VPN offers an efficient user interface, with a dashboard that allows you to select servers by location or need. It is compatible with Android, Apple and Windows devices, though it limits the number of devices that can have an OpenVPN connection. IPVanish currently offers 40,000 IP addresses and 325 servers in 60 countries.