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Are VPNs safe?


VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are a top-rated service for improving users’ web browsing experience in various ways. For example, the software can hide your IP address, change your location, bypass censorship, and protect you against malware.

However, a deeper dive into the inner workings of these tools begs the question – are VPNs safe?

In general, most premium VPNs are reliable and include the tools you need to stay secure online. However, the same can’t be said for free services. Ultimately, skeptical customers should verify whether a VPN is secure by checking its feature arsenal and researching the company’s overall reputation.

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What features make a VPN safe?

First and foremost, VPNs are software. Thus, their effectiveness dramatically depends on how and what technology they implement. Furthermore, a secure VPN must include various tools to protect users against a wide spectrum of digital threats. So let’s cover the most critical security features one by one.

Encryption

The key difference between VPNs and run-of-the-mill proxies is encryption. It ensures your online activities are 100% unreadable to potential onlookers. This includes your ISP (Internet Service Provider), Wi-Fi administrators, government agencies, and data-hungry nefarious hackers.

However, encryption methods can vary in strength and effectiveness. The most common cipher among the top VPNs on the market is AES-256. You’ll inevitably find variations, but this number is the most optimal regarding security and performance. Modern computers could easily crack encryption using fewer bits, while more is overboard and could significantly affect connection performance.

Tunneling protocols

Information between technological devices is transferred using tunneling protocols. You’re likely already familiar with some of the ones used to deliver data on the internet (IP, HTTP, FTP, etc). Meanwhile, virtual private networks have their subset of VPN protocols, each with certain pros and cons. The table below highlights the most common ones in the industry at the moment.

Secure protocolsOutdated protocols
WireGuard, OpenVPN, IKEv2, SSTP, proprietary protocols (NordLynx, Lightway, Hydra, etc.)PPTP

One of the most widely used VPN tunneling protocols is OpenVPN. It’s been around since 2001 and grants adequate security, reliability, and connection quality. It was upgraded numerous times over the years, which resulted in a bloated and difficult-to-manage codebase. Thus, this option isn’t particularly fast and is potentially riddled with vulnerabilities.

An improvement came along around 2020 with the release of WireGuard. The protocol was built from the ground up with performance and reliability in mind. Naturally, it isn’t as widespread as OpenVPN because it's relatively new. However, VPN services that implement it can boast mind-blowing connection speeds.

nordvpn-interface-on-windows
NordVPN enabled on Windows

The aforementioned protocols are also open-source, meaning VPN providers can use them as starting points for developing proprietary alternatives. Such is the case with NordLynx – NordVPN’s improved version of WireGuard. It remedied some of the protocol’s shortcomings and launched NordVPN to leading positions in numerous VPN speed tests.

The key takeaway is that modern protocols like WireGuard are safer and quicker but incompatible with older devices and routers. Meanwhile, specific age-old industry-standard protocols like OpenVPN are balanced and quite reliable. Finally, some outdated artifacts like PPTP should be avoided at all costs.

No-logs policy

Potential virtual private network users are rightfully concerned about their privacy while using a VPN. After all, the service could be logging their every move to later sell that information to advertisers, government authorities, and other interested parties. This wouldn’t be shocking either because some VPNs were caught logging user data.

As such, many providers claim to adhere to no-logs policies, assuring customers that their online activities aren’t tracked in any way. Naturally, not everyone is convinced by such statements if there’s nothing to back them up. That is where independent audits come into play (more on that later).

Kill switch

Software never works perfectly, and VPN services are no exception. There’s also the chance of plain old human error. Whatever the cause, you’ll need a failsafe to guarantee that your IP address and location aren’t leaked if the VPN connection unexpectedly disconnects.

That’s where a VPN kill switch comes into play. When enabled, it immediately cuts off your internet connection whenever a VPN tunnel isn’t active. This feature is critical if you need a VPN’s unrelenting security when going online.

DNS leak protection

A VPN connection should hide not only your IP address but also your DNS requests because those can just as easily expose your location and online activities. Luckily, most VPNs include robust DNS leak protection and enable it by default. However, you can double-check if your information isn’t slipping through using third-party websites like dnsleaktest.com.

Ad and malware blocking

The world wide web is littered with numerous cybersecurity threats. Unfortunately, online ads fall into this category because hackers frequently use them to distribute viruses and other malicious software (malware).

nordvpn threat protection
NordVPN Threat Protection settings

Netizens typically resort to quality ad blockers to deal with this issue. However, they can only remove them from sight and can’t help if your device gets infected with malware.

Meanwhile, a well-equipped VPN like NordVPN can block ads, scan incoming files, and prevent network intrusions, DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) attacks, phishing attempts, and other nuisances.

Some VPNs may also improve your security against malware to a certain degree. However, you’ll have more reliable results with dedicated antivirus software that’s better prepared to deal with all types of malicious software, including viruses, trojans, and ransomware.

In short, a versatile VPN can protect you on many fronts and remove the need for dedicated ad-blocking services. Unfortunately, it can’t substitute reliable antivirus software if you’re worried about more severe online attacks.

Third-party audits

As mentioned above, no-log claims fall on deaf ears if no one verifies that a VPN fulfills its promise. Therefore, the most reliable VPN providers began employing various third parties to audit them. These impromptu checks can vary in scope and focus on logging policies, server hardware, specific apps, or anything else needing checking.

For example, NordVPN was audited three times by various firms, the latest of which was in 2022 by Deloitte. The same company also verified Surfshark’s zero-logs claims. Meanwhile, some services like PureVPN boast always-on audits, meaning KPMG can check them at any time without prior notice.

VPN limitations and considerations

As you can imagine, VPNs can’t solve every cybersecurity problem. Plus, they usually include a fair number of drawbacks, which can vary depending on your chosen provider. Let’s see what you should pay special attention to before committing to VPN providers.

VPN provider trustworthiness

There’s no denying that a certain degree of trust is necessary when picking a VPN service. Luckily, a few objective factors hint at which providers are more reliable than others.

  • Company. You’ll know you’re in good hands if it’s easy to find detailed information about the company behind the service.
  • Jurisdiction. Some countries have robust consumer protection and privacy laws. On the flip side, online businesses elsewhere bend the knee to oppressive governments and hand over user data to the authorities at a moment's notice. And don’t forget that some countries cooperate on the pretense of national security (read about the 14-Eyes alliance for more information).
  • Privacy policy. Although privacy policies are usually lengthy and filled with difficult-to-understand legalese, they can showcase if a provider’s no-logs promise has merit.
  • Independent audits. Don’t think a single independent audit cleanses a VPN of all sin. A truly reliable VPN should continuously conduct audits to maintain its reputation.
  • Lack of scandals. To add to the previous point, a worthwhile VPN shouldn’t have any skeletons in its closet. That means no instances of handing over customer data to authorities and as few security incidents as possible.

Potential VPN risks

Let’s see what you can expect to encounter when you don’t heed our warnings and end up with an unreliable VPN app on your device.

  • Overselling. Unknown VPN services often oversell what their products can do for customers, leading to user frustration when their expectations aren’t met.
  • Poor performance. VPNs without good reputations will inevitably disappoint by providing slow connection speeds, subpar security, ineffective geo-block removal, and other issues.
  • Unreasonable prices. Unreasonable subscription costs usually follow false promises. Plus, don’t expect free trials or money-back guarantees from obscure providers.
  • Data logging. Many unknown, low-quality VPNs resort to data logging and selling to supplement their paper-thin revenues.
  • Viruses and other malware. The most heinous VPNs are malware in disguise, waiting to wreck your device.

Performance issues

VPNs, by their very nature, slow down your connection because your data packets have to travel a greater distance than usual. Of course, this is mostly determined by the tunneling protocol you choose. On the other hand, numerous other factors influence how drastic that change is.

For example, connecting to servers on the other side of the globe can severely slow you down even when using the fastest VPNs on the market. Low server options and traffic congestion can further exacerbate this. Plus, there’s always the possibility of general network issues or maintenance causing slowdowns.

Legality of VPN usage

A handful of authoritarian countries (e.g., Russia, China, Belarus, Iraq, Iran, etc.) impose restrictions on VPN use or have rendered them entirely illegal. The legal landscape is constantly in flux, so be sure to consult our dedicated article about the legality of VPNs worldwide.

Benefits of using a VPN

Despite the aforementioned potential flaws, VPNs are a must-have because they grant so many benefits to everyday users. Have a look at the perks below and see how many apply to you.

Secure web browsing

Nowadays, many online services track your every move and craft personalized ads to get you to purchase a product you desperately need. Additionally, you’re constantly in the crosshairs of ill-willed hackers that bombard your senses with virus-laden spam emails or ads.

A top-shelf VPN can significantly reduce the tracking you face while simultaneously dealing with dangerous online advertisements. At the very least, it will keep you anonymous and free from mass surveillance.

Unlocking bonus streaming content

One of the most widespread VPN use cases is changing your region to unlock geo-exclusive movies or TV shows on streaming services like Netflix. Most importantly, this principle applies to numerous platforms (Hulu, Max, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+), meaning you can unlock an immense amount of content using one VPN for streaming.

P2P file sharing

P2P file-sharing, commonly referred to as torrenting, is frequently restricted by ISPs and network administrators because of its association with digital piracy. We do not condone downloading copyrighted content but understand that torrenting limitations frustrate anyone trying to share legitimate files. Luckily, a good VPN for torrenting can mask your activities and bypass any P2P restrictions getting in the way.

Online gaming

A well-performing VPN can minimize inevitable frustrations while gaming online. Specifically, it can hide your IP address and make you immune to targeted denial-of-service attacks. Plus, it can optimize your connection quality, thus reducing ping and lagging. Just be sure to use an optimal gaming VPN. Otherwise, you’ll get more stuttering than usual due to slow connectivity.

Remote work and business use

VPNs are a critical part of any online business. They’re frequently used to make company resources exclusive to specific IP addresses (which are gained when enabling a VPN). That makes it easier to enforce good cybersecurity practices on every team member. Plus, it makes remote work more accessible because you’re no longer obligated to visit the office for its IP address.

Video review

Can you really trust VPNs? Can they be hacked? All of your questions are answered in our video rundown below:

Are free VPNs safe?

It should be evident that most free VPNs aren’t safe because they are guilty of perpetuating consumer-unfriendly monetization practices. After all, it’s impossible to maintain a high-quality VPN service without a revenue stream. And so, completely free providers likely resort to intrusive ads and data logging to make ends meet.

However, empty-pocketed customers aren’t entirely out of options, thanks to freemium VPN providers. As the name suggests, premium subscriptions keep these services afloat yet offer free plans for anyone who can’t afford to sign up. Unsurprisingly, the costless method includes drawbacks, like lackluster server options, throttled speeds, and monthly data caps.

Another approach is taking advantage of premium VPNs with free trials. They allow you to temporarily experience the whole benefits package and decide whether signing up is worth it (pro tip – NordVPN is definitely worth it). On the other hand, almost all VPNs offer a 30-day money-back guarantee to get acquainted with the service if you don’t mind opening your wallet just a bit.

Conclusion

There are hundreds of VPN provider options with varying degrees of quality. Some can be considered safe, while others cannot. Hopefully, now you know better what features distinguish secure VPNs from the rest.

And if you need the most secure VPN for every conceivable situation, look no further than NordVPN. It’s brimming with excellent features, ensures ultra-fast connections with NordLynx, and provides unrivaled online anonymity.

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