How Secure is a VPN?
Using a reliable virtual private network (VPN) can be a safe way to browse the internet. VPN security is increasingly being used to prevent data from being snooped on by government agencies and major corporations or to access blocked websites. However, using a free VPN tool can be insecure.
If you are asking what is VPN, it is a virtual network that enables an internet user to protect themselves and their organization by creating a private web browsing session. This is especially important when using public Wi-Fi to prevent other people from eavesdropping on the user’s online activity and the data and information they share. A VPN creates a secure tunnel between a user’s computer and the VPN server, which hides their online activity and location.
VPN security enables users to protect their online privacy and prevent their internet service provider (ISP) from tracking their browsing activity. It works by connecting a user’s device to the VPN server, then passing their internet traffic through the VPN provider’s internet connection. This hides browsing information and makes it more difficult for bad actors to gather or monitor the user’s online activity.
Is Private Browsing Really Private?
You might be asking yourself. "Do I really need a VPN when my browser has private browsing?"
Popular web browsers include a feature called private browsing, which enables users to browse the web without saving their history, search information, and temporary local data like cookies. Private browsing is available through top browsers, such as Apple Safari on Mac and iOS, Google Chrome’s Incognito mode, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Microsoft Edge’s InPrivate Browsing.
A browser's private browsing mode will prevent data from being stored on a user’s local device or computer. However, it does not necessarily prevent information from being shared between the user’s device or computer and their ISP. Furthermore, third parties may be able to detect users’ activity through private browsing sessions, which they can use to exploit their operating system.
5 Reasons Why Free VPNs Are Not Safe
"Is VPN safe?" is a question everyone should be asking, and the answer is straightforward. Using free software is not an effective solution for ensuring VPN security because it often will not protect data and browsing activity on the internet. Key reasons not to use a free VPN include:
- Free VPN tools compromise user security: Many free VPN tools contain malware that could be used by cyber criminals to steal users’ data, gain unauthorized access to their data or machine, or launch a cyberattack. Research report from the ICSI Networking and Security Group found that 38% of the 283 Android VPN apps studied contained some form of malware presence. Therefore, a VPN application may not always be safe when using free tools.
- Free VPN tools track online activity: A secure VPN should protect a user’s activity while they browse the internet, but some free VPNs do the opposite by tracking users’ online activity. The same ICSI research found that 72% of the free VPN services analyzed embedded third-party tracking tools in their software. This enables VPN tools to collect user information and sell it for a profit to the highest bidders, which allows advertisers to target free VPN users with ads. Some free VPN tools hide information about whether they share or sell user data, but others say so in their privacy policies.
- Free VPN tools limit data usage: VPNs are great for protecting data or hiding a user’s location when watching a movie from a streaming service that is not available in their region. However, a free VPN typically limits the amount of data users can use through the tool. This could include limiting the amount of data they can use per month, limiting the amount of time the VPN is available per browsing session, or unblocking certain websites only. Therefore, free VPN tools are not ideal for people who want to protect their data or mask their location for a considerable length of time.
- Free VPNs slow down users’ internet speed: Similar to the data-limiting issue above, free VPNs may provide slower internet speeds than premium tools. Even free VPN options from reputable vendors will provide a slower internet connection than available through their paid-for options. They will also prioritize internet speeds for their paying customers, which can further slow down their free services.
- Free VPN tools target users with ads: Free VPNs also use advertising to generate revenue, which means users’ data can be shared or targeted without their permission. This is frustrating for users because ads can also slow down the user’s internet connection or contain malware. The presence of ads on a free VPN service can also be a privacy concern because it is likely the provider is sharing users’ online activity with third-party services. Paid-for VPNs include ad-blocking tools, as well as features like malware protection and unlimited bandwidth, which keep users’ data secure.
Which Features Make a Secure and Safe VPN?
The question of how secure are VPN services typically depends on the VPN being used. A VPN from a reliable provider will feature encryption for the user's data and online browsing history to shield them from hackers and ISPs.
Is using VPN safe? That is reliant on a provider that ensures online privacy, provides transparent privacy policies, fixes data leaks, and does not track its users. The best VPN tool or application contains the following features:
- Internet Protocol (IP) address leak prevention: The core purpose of a VPN is to hide or disguise a user’s IP address and prevent anyone from tracking their online activity. However, a VPN can sometimes include flaws that result in the user’s IP location being leaked. It is therefore important to look for a provider that actively prevents IP address leaks. Check reviews online to see if they have a history of IP address leakage.
- No information logging: No-log VPNs do not collect, or log, data that users share on the network, such as login credentials, files they download, and their search history. This is key to ensuring users’ online privacy and protecting their anonymity from other internet users. It also ensures that a user’s information is protected, even if an attacker gains unauthorized access to a VPN tool. When considering a VPN, check whether it logs online activity, logs and periodically purges data, or discloses user information in any other scenario.
- VPN kill switch: In case a VPN connection drops, the user’s internet access will switch to their regular connection. A VPN kill switch feature automatically exits specific programs if an internet connection becomes unstable to reduce the risk of sensitive data being leaked by applications.
- Multi-factor authentication (MFA): Any VPN program should be as secure as possible to ensure that only authorized users can gain access to it. MFA enables a user to prove their identity, that they are who they say they are, before they are given access to the VPN. For example, upon logging in to the VPN using their username and password, the user can then be sent a code via Short Message Service (SMS) or a notification that they can approve on their mobile phone. This extra level of security ensures only the right people can access a VPN and makes it more difficult for a hacker to intercept.
How Fortinet Can Help
Fortinet provides a range of secure VPN tools with its FortiGate Internet Protocol security (IPsec)/secure sockets layer (SSL) VPN solutions. The FortiGate VPN offerings are high-performance, scalable VPNs that provide users and organizations with access control and consistent security policies across all their applications, devices, and locations.
The FortiGate VPNs offer secure communication between multiple endpoints and networks through IPsec and SSL technologies. This ensures that users’ data is protected in high-speed motion, which prevents them from falling prey to data breaches or cyberattacks such as man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.