If you're a first time VPN user, or just curious about trying one for yourself, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there – not to mention the technical jargon. Preventing cyberattacks, concealing your IP address, and unblocking restricted content sounds great in theory, but is it safe?
We'll dig into that question in this blog post, and I'll also cover some of the ways a VPN takes your safety into account – so let's get started!
🤔Okay, so how do VPNs even work?
First things first, downloading a VPN won't damage your device. Stick with a reputable provider and follow along with the on-screen installer and you won't have a problem! However, I totally get it if you're wary of installing new apps on your PC, laptop, or phone. But remember that a VPN doesn't change anything internally – it's just rerouting your internet traffic!
This happens as soon as you switch your VPN on and connect to a server. By doing so, you create an encrypted tunnel that connects your device and the VPN server. Any and all traffic that passes through this tunnel is encrypted, and that's the major selling point of a VPN, seeing as it'll hide your original IP address and make it that much harder for third-parties to snoop on you.
That could be cybercriminals, or it could your government, your work or school, or even your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Obviously, that's pretty handy now that net neutrality is dead in the water and ISPs are more invasive than ever. They have free rein to collect your browsing data, now, and use it to create eerily personal ads, develop a profile of your activity, or even throttle your internet speeds.
A VPN puts a stop to that, and if you're out and about and using public Wi-Fi hotspots, you'll want to make sure you're using a VPN to stay safe from hackers that just love lurking there. If we're being honest, though, most people want to check out VPNs when they learn how much geo-restricted content they could access. I'm talking about using a VPN for Netflix to access US content, using aVPN for BBC iPlayer, and basically anything else where the menu of content changes depending on where you live.
Pretty cool, right? But it begs the question...
🚓Is using a VPN legal?
When we talk about avoiding the eyes of your ISP and unblocking tons of restricted Netflix content, it's natural to wonder how legal this all is. Fortunately, VPNs themselves aren't nefarious at all, and are actually legal in most parts of the world.
They are banned in certain territories, however, either outright or via heavy restrictions, and some countries require you to register your VPN before you can use it without fear of prosecution. If you live in one of the following countries you'll find that you face these common obstacles, and they make using a VPN far more complicated... and risky:
- North Korea
- United Arab Emirates
The reality is that people use VPNs for all sorts of reasons – they're not solely for getting up to no good in the dark corners of the web! Businesses around the world use VPNs every day, in fact, as a way to bulk up their network security and as a means to allow remote workers access to key company infrastructures. Using a VPN is not a crime, but the things you do whilst using a VPN could very much be illegal.
For example, if you download or stream copyrighted content, that's a crime regardless of whether or not you had your VPN switched on.
There are sites and services out there that have taken action against VPNs, too. This still doesn't make VPNs illegal, though it might mean that using one is against that site's Terms of Service! Continuing to use a VPN whilst on the site could land you with a fine or a ban, though this sort of thing is pretty rare.
A good example of this practice in action is Netflix. The service isn't daft, and it knows that a lot of people use VPNs to get their money's worth and spoof their location to unblock regional libraries. So, Netflix goes out of its way to block IPs that it knows belong to VPN services. This can make it more difficult to access geo-restricted content, though most premium VPNs won't be phased.
Check out ProPrivacys are VPNs legal guide for more information about this topic.
🧾What are logs?
This question always pops up when I get into conversations about VPNs. They keep your internet traffic and browsing habits safe from prying ISPs, but doesn't that mean that they can still read it themselves? And doesn't that mean that they're keeping tabs on you the same way an ISP would?
The short answer is that the best VPNs out there won't. The VPNs I recommend in my posts actually go out of their way to reassure users that their data is in good hands by offering transparent zero-logs policies.
This is a big deal! Logs are your trail across the internet, and anytime you visit a site, a record of that action is kept by the site itself and your ISP. That's a log, and you can imagine just how detailed a profile of your activity your ISP could create by monitoring you for just a few weeks. Like I said, however, the top VPN services all come with zero-logs policies and aren't interested in your activity, what you've downloaded, or the contents of your search history.
And not having a stockpile of user logs is massively important. It means that hackers won't find any of your details if they target the VPN, and if the authorities come knocking one day, demanding the provider comply and hand over their logs, there'll be nothing to give them. You can't fork over what you don't have, after all.
So, why do VPNs go through the trouble of ensuring that their services keep zero logs? A lot of it comes down to credibility. A VPN claiming to be trustworthy, and a champion of online privacy, can't be secretly storing user information for later! It'd be a disaster that they'd never recover from if it were found out.
But you don't have to take the VPNs word for it. The best of the bunch invite independent auditors to sift through their policies to make sure it's living up to everything it claims. They'll sniff out inconsistencies or gaps and publish a report afterwards. It's great to see services be proactive like this, and it's reassuring for users to know that a third-party has given the VPN the all-clear.
Some VPNs keep logs, but these will be the sort of logs that they're quite candid about. They usually contain pretty generic information, like aggregate bandwidth data and maybe your email address to facilitate troubleshooting and to stay in touch, but your own personal safety model will determine whether this is a deal-breaker or not.
Location, location, location...
Before you take the plunge with any VPN, always have a look at the jurisdiction that it's based in! It could have massive ramifications, because if the service is based in a country that's part of the 5/9/14 Eyes Alliance, your data could be fodder for surveillance agencies. If safety is your primary goal, I'd suggest sticking to VPNs who make their homes away from these places where data retention laws are in effect.
🔧The right tools for the job
If you're hunting for a VPN, and have a privacy-minded approach, there are a few key factors and features to be on the lookout for. Of course, the list below isn't exhaustive in any way, but it details some of the most vital things a VPN should offer you in return for your trust... and your money.
Okay, this one's eye-rollingly obvious, but a VPN with weak encryption isn't worth considering! Remember that the industry standard is AES-256 encryption and that this does an awesome job of keeping your data secure in that encrypted tunnel I mentioned earlier, and it'll prevent miscreants from spying or stealing any valuable info from you, too. It's also worth checking out which protocols are offered by the VPN. Some services are creating their own proprietary options, which are often quick and light-weight, but if in doubt, stick with OpenVPN – the favorite of the security-conscious everywhere!
VPNs aren't infallible, and they can fall victim to vulnerabilities. This can ultimately lead to bits of your personal information leaking out through gaps in the encrypted tunnel... and that's not ideal. It goes against everything a VPN should be doing, but luckily there are services out there that are tackling this issue head on! Look for VPNs that offer DNS and IPv6 leak protection, and make sure those vulnerabilities aren't used as entry points by hackers.
A kill-switch is a kind of scary name for what it actually is – which is a failsafe! A VPN conceals your original IP address, and that IP address can be used to determine a lot of information about you. You're fine and cloaked when the VPN is working, but if your connection drops for whatever reason, then your IP address could feasibly leak and rat you out. A kill-switch is on hand for this eventuality, and it'll cut your internet connection if it senses that the VPN has dropped, which prevents your IP from leaking and informing your ISP, government, or system admin about what you're up to.
Two factor authentication
You've probably used two-factor authentication (2FA) even if you weren't aware that that's what it's called! Basically, when a site asks you to provide additional evidence supporting your identity before you can log in to your account, that's 2FA. This commonly happens via text, where a code will be sent to your mobile that you then input into the site in question, in addition to your email and password. This is a great little feature, because it adds another steep obstacle for hackers to clamber over if they want to get their mitts on your account. Always opt-in for 2FA where you can, and make sure you're using it with your VPN, too!
💸Let's talk about free VPNs
Onto the elephant in the room. I do it too; whenever I find a site or service that requires a subscription, I look around for a cheaper option... or even a free option! I like to think I'm pretty thrifty this way, but the old adage is true – you get what you pay for.
And this certainly applies to VPNs. Check out the pricing page of the VPN you're scoping out and see what your money could buy you.
VPN businesses need money – it's not a cheap gig, after all – but if free VPN providers aren't charging a subscription fee, how are they paying their bills?
Unfortunately, the answer is that a lot of time these 'free' services are using your data as currency. They'll log it and sell it off to third-party advertisers. This is a shady way for any business to operate, but doubly so for VPN providers, who are often counted on to keep users safe.
Besides, free VPNs lack a lot of the features you'd find included in a premium subscription. Diminished (or entirely absent) encryption, fewer servers, bandwidth caps and data limits – not to mention, free services are really rubbish at unblocking Netflix and streaming in HD.
The best VPNs charge a fee, sure, but the fact that you're interested in VPNs at all surely means that you value your safety – and a small monthly payment is literally a small price to pay for digital peace of mind. That being said, there are VPNs out there to suit every budget, and your money goes towards supporting speedy servers and bandwidth, developing new features and, of course, maintaining that all-important encryption. Check out our cheap VPN page for a list of low-cost premium services.
But, if you're like me and wince at the thought of spending money, you can take advantage of the 30-day money-back guarantees offered by all the leading VPN providers. These are pretty awesome, because they give you a way to trial the service in your own time, on your own devices, with your own priorities, and all without the limitations of a free service. You will have to front the cost but it's a simple matter of pinging over an email or live chat message if you're unhappy with the service – don't be afraid to ask for your money back!
It might seem like anathema to say this here on ProPrivacy.com, but total online anonymity isn't achievable. Your ISP keeps tabs on you, you're collared by your IP address, and even VPNs have some insight into your activity.
VPNs aren't perfect, and if someone really had it out for you and wanted to pinpoint your location or pester you with malware, they could, but that's not an everyday experience. VPNs are great tools for boosting your digital security and reclaiming your online privacy.
So, as for whether VPNs are safe or not, I'd say that they are! There's no perfect solution for staying entirely safe online – just using it is a risk (and VPNs are banned in some places) – but pick your provider with some common sense and you'll be fine. Your device won't be damaged by the installation, and the no logs policy will ensure that your activity isn't broadcast for your ISP, government, and network administrator to see.
I hope I've addressed your concerns about VPN safety in this blog post, but for anything else, refer to the frequently asked questions listed below! Also, if you want to read up more about what VPNs are, what they can do, or the providers we'd recommend, we have some cracking articles that you can check out here: