Digital privacy and protection are some of most individuals’ biggest concerns when online. Everyone’s heard of those internet horror stories where hackers retrieve important details and steal an individual’s identity or max out their credit cards. While the population has become digitally native and more educated on online protection, there are new challenges that must be tackled constantly. Being tracked or hacked could be an abstract concept to some, as they may not feel the effects of an attack. Unlike the example of your personal identity and credit card information being stolen, the bigger threat is online platforms selling and using your personal data without your permission, as it’s rampant on most websites.
So how does a VPN help protect or prevent you from getting into these situations? Our best VPNs page lists some of the most secure and reputable VPNs on the market, yet not many people actually know what goes into protecting them online. Currently, a VPN is the best tool a common internet user can equip to protect themselves and stay anonymous online. So, if you’ve wondered how a VPN can protect you and if you can be tracked or hacked while using one, read on to find all the answers to your questions.
What exactly does a VPN do to help protect you online? All you do is press the “on” switch and browse the internet as normal on the user end. Behind the scenes, however, your connection goes through an array of protocols that help encrypt and obfuscate your digital presence. In its most basic form, a VPN takes your IP address (that is used to connect to the internet) and encrypts it, which shields your online activity from intrusive third parties, intruders, and even your own ISP (Internet Service Provider). On top of that encryption, while you’re connected to the internet via a VPN, there are no logs of your activity, so it’s as if you were never really connected to the internet — there are no traces of identifiable information that can lead back to you.
Here’s what happens when you connect to the internet without a VPN. You enter a website address into the browser, and your ISP signals your router to direct your internet traffic to that website. Your ISP assigns you a unique number, also known as your IP address, that is essentially your “digital passport” it may contain information about you such as your address, telephone number, email, and the ISP you use. Many, if not most, modern websites use your IP address and plant cookies on your computer to retrieve more specific information about you to keep a profile on you that they can use to advertise products and services to you or sell your data to third parties. If you don’t think that sounds very secure or private, you’d be correct.
When you use a VPN, you connect to the VPN provider’s servers, and your internet traffic passes through the VPN’s internet connection, where it has a pool of other connections all doing the same thing as yours. This is one tactic that helps hide and obfuscate your IP address, and since your connection is muddled with a bunch of others on the VPN’s server, your IP address now appears as the VPN’s to third parties and ISPs. VPN providers also do not store or log any identifiable or sensitive information like form information, history, or cookies.
Truthfully, even the most secure servers and connections can be tracked. Tracking is significantly easier than hacking but does not reveal as much harmful information. Your information is more easily tracked if the intruder knows what they’re looking for. If you’re a high-profile individual or someone with extremely determined and high-tech enemies, then it’s technically possible to be tracked even with a VPN connection, although extremely hard. The truth is that it’s incredibly time-consuming and expensive to go through all the data and digital information needed in order to locate your specific connection. Therefore, most ISPs or third parties won’t bother if you’re protected behind a VPN.
If you don’t want to be tracked while using a VPN, it’s paramount that you use a paid, premium VPN provider. Free VPNs make their money through in-app advertisements and sometimes through selling your data. A free VPN may encrypt your internet connection and protect you from online threats, but it might not have no-log policies. If you’re worried about being tracked, then check to see if your VPN provider has a no-log policy. If it doesn’t, then it’s a major red flag, and you should consider another provider. Using a premium VPN is also extremely important for those in dangerous or censored countries. If you regularly access websites that are considered illegal or blocked in those countries, then those governments have reason to target and track you. A good VPN operates in a neutral country that does not cooperate with any government and has no personally identifiable information to provide.
Most of the time, VPNs are a collection of servers rather than a centralized entity. Imagine a hacker trying to hack a single connection only to find out that it’s in fact a million connections. Again, while technically hackable, the number of resources needed to hack a VPN connection successfully is immense. Additionally, as previously mentioned, most high-quality VPNs have strict no-log policies. The servers the VPNs run on technically store minimal amounts of data required to connect to the internet, but every time you disconnect from it or change servers, all your data is deleted. Therefore, even if a hacker were able to break into the VPN server, there would be minimal, if any at all, information to access and take advantage of.
There have been instances of VPN providers being hacked, but nothing of substance was stolen due to their no-log policies. That’s to say that there will always be exploits and hackers testing the boundaries of a security system. However, using a VPN is significantly safer than not, and the chances of a VPN server being hacked are quite slim.
A VPN isn’t a catch-all solution to staying safe online. While it’s a great tool for anonymity and connection encryption, there are a few other things to consider when trying to practice digital safety. Here are a few tips to help you stay safe online:
- Having a secure password: Having a secure password with a mixture of uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and symbols is the strongest way to protect your online accounts. It’s even better if each website you have an account on has a different password. The best password managers can help you keep track of all this information, so you don’t have to worry about it.
- Be wary of what you download: Downloading a virus or malware is the single most damaging thing you can do on your computer. Be careful of what you download and what websites you’re downloading files from.
- Be careful of what you share: What you post on social media may be used against you if a hacker or intruder is trying to find out more specific information about you. If you’re open with your sensitive information on the internet, it won’t be very hard for them to find what they’re looking for.
- Be cautious of your emails: Phishing scams are common for those who aren’t alert when reading emails. Phishing emails are ones disguised as official emails from reputable websites that ask you to log in. Once you log into the phishing website, they store your username, email, and password and use it to access your account on the real website.