Are VPNs safe to use and do they really protect you?
If you’re concerned about internet security at all, you’ve probably heard about VPNs and proxies. And for good reason. In an age where information is everything, and everyone from Facebook to the government seems to be performing cartwheels to buy and sell your personal data, it’s important to protect yourself and your privacy.
But what is a VPN? And is it really safe to use, or is it just another service squirreling away your information to sell to the highest bidder?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it works by creating a server tunnel you can connect to the internet through. Acting like you’re browsing from anywhere in the world, the server protects your real location and IP address with encryption technology. Only you and your VPN provider can see who and where you are.
That naturally raises a few concerns. Is it even legal to hide your identity with a VPN? Is a VPN secure enough to stop hackers and government blockers? If the provider knows your real information, what’s to stop them from giving it away?
In short, the answers to those questions depend on a few different variables.
Is it illegal to use a VPN?
Purchasing, activating, and using a VPN to hide your identity and browse from other server locations is perfectly legal in most of the world, such as the US, the UK, and Canada. The countries that have outlawed VPNs and proxies, largely due to censorship or national security reasons, include China, Iran, and North Korea. Other countries such as Russia, impose strict regulations and bans, but don’t illegalise personal use.
Even so, simply having a VPN isn’t illegal in countries where it’s outlawed. Such as the case in China, the provider websites are blocked by government firewalls. But a VPN can still be purchased outside of the country and brought in.
However, any illegal activity you partake in while under a VPN’s protection is still breaking the law. A VPN is a tool to protect your identity and bypass dangerous censorship walls, not a bandit’s mask to more easily commit crimes.
Encryption strength: What’s good enough and what isn’t
What makes VPNs so popular is their encryption technology. By encrypting your data, a VPN makes accessing your information impossible without decrypting it. But if decryption is still possible, how do you know your data will stay safe?
The best VPN providers employ military-grade encryption technology. Well, what does that mean? You don’t need to know everything about how encryption works, but it’s important to be able to recognise what’s good enough for your security.
VPNs using AES, IPSec, and OpenVPN technologies will have high-grade security. These encryption types are military and government-grade, and AES in particular is used by NASA to protect data that is vital to national security.
When looking into a VPN, make sure its encryption technologies are up-to-date and high-grade. Most of the top providers use 128-bit or 256-bit AES, which is plenty good enough to protect your data. Stay away from providers that don’t disclose the technologies and encryption types they use.
What the provider does with your data
No matter how you set your VPN up, someone will still be able to see your real IP address and location. And that someone is your provider, the owner of the server you’re using. So what’s stopping them from spying on you and selling your information to the entities you’re trying to protect yourself from?
The answer is reputation, money, and trust.
A reliable VPN provider wants to be known for fast server speeds, great customer service, and trustworthy policies. A good reputation is great for business, and being known for selling customer information is very bad for a company’s consumer standing.
However, money is also good for business.
Some free VPN services, or even fake ones posing as real providers, make their money by selling customer information. These providers don’t care what anyone thinks of them and are driven solely by greed. They depend on customers who are ignorant of their tactics and proper policy checkmarks, just looking for the easiest and cheapest VPN to use.
No matter what VPN you’re looking into, but especially if you’re using a free version, make sure it’s both from a reputable provider and has a clearly stated zero logs policy.
The verdict on VPNs
So, are VPNs safe to use? It depends on where you are, what you’re using it for, and which service you select. Even with a VPN, it’s impossible to completely erase your online presence. Your provider knows your real location and IP address, so it’s imperative that you select a reputable service with a no logs policy.
But the act of using a VPN is absolutely legal, so long as your activities remain legal, and having one allows you to browse privately and access restricted content blocked by censorship firewalls. Look into whichever VPN you choose, and stay aware that your provider can still know what you’re up to. If you get a high-rated VPN with powerful encryption technologies, your internet browsing will be, for the most part, safe, private, and secure.