First, let’s establish what most people mean by “safe.” VPNs cannot make you completely “anonymous” the way a Tor browser does, but it does encrypt all your identifying data and use state-of-the-art security technology to keep you private. And if you’re not selling grenade launchers on the Dark Web, you probably don’t need to be a total ghost anyway.
So, yes, a quality VPN will keep your identity private, will keep your important data locked behind a third-party firewall so it’s virtually impenetrable by hackers, and it will allow you to bypass government censors, content geo-restrictions for entertainment, and enhance basically any other dimension of safety you can think of.
What are you using the VPN for?
As long as you stick to legal activities, like conducting proprietary business research or sending anonymous emails or just performing some bank or business transactions you want to keep private and secure— you have much little to worry about when using a good VPN.
Most people who have any worries with a VPN are those who are doing something illegal. VPNs will keep you private and safe, but that doesn’t mean a court can’t subpoena records if you’re caught committing crimes, so be smart about how you behave online.
Of course, if you’re a journalist participating in a bit of civil disobedience overseas—reporting important news a tyrannical government is trying to squelch— then you have to search your moral compass about whether you’re willing to risk jail time for freedom of speech.
What Does it Mean to Be “Safe and Secure” Online?
Unfortunately, with every innovation and convenience of new technology come new risks and added precautions that need to be followed. Hackers today are increasingly sophisticated, which means consumers need to be more sophisticated about the security measures they take on.
Many of us have a deeply-connected relationship with the Internet via wireless technology. This includes everything from smart appliances to personal assistant robots powered by Google or Amazon, and any other devices and toys that make up what’s known as the “Internet of Things.”
It’s no longer as simple as keeping your laptop safe from viruses or trojans. You now need to keep your phone, tablet, wearables, smart outlets, thermostats, cameras and all your other gadgets protected from hackers and spies who can steal and sell your data.
But What if I Don’t Use All Those Modern Devices?
It’s tempting to think that your online footprint is simpler than most people. Maybe you don’t use social media as much, or your do most shopping in person. But don’t be fooled—if you have any online presence at all, consider yourself at risk for security and privacy problems.
We do our shopping online. We read our news and make banking transactions. We track our health records and take online courses, sign up for coupons and social media accounts and dozens of other things we hardly give a second thought to.
Think of all the big box stores and credit card companies have been hacked, with your information being exposed along with millions of others. Hackers can pirate this data and use it for nefarious things on the Deep Web, which can have a lasting impact on our lives.
What Can I Do About Safety?
Luckily, you can use a quality VPN provider to protect your identity, your browser history and secure all your important data.
Here are a few of the ways the best VPN companies help you stay safe, private and secure:
- VPNs mask your ISP address, so hackers, governments and other spies can’t figure your where you live or which computer you’re using.
- VPNs allow you to use public WiFi with confidence. (The better VPNs will also have mobile apps for phones and tablets.) Without a VPN to encrypt your files and hide your identity, public hotspots are the easiest places for hackers to compromise your security.
- VPNs encrypt your payment credentials, so you can do secure things like banking, filling out your tax returns and even investing online.
- VPNs allow you to view and edit cloud-based documents like sensitive personal and work files.
How do I know a particular VPN company keeps me safe?
If you do your homework in the form of a bit of research on VPN providers, you’ll be just fine.
A quality VPN company will have an extensive FAQ section, knowledge base and how-to section that puts you at ease and answers al your questions.
Moreover, there are several well-respected blogs and consumer advocacy sites that help you narrow down the best of the best in cybersecurity products, using different metrics and features that are important to the safety-minded user.
Here are a few helpful safety details to look for in a VPN’s policies:
- Do they clearly state their security standards (mechanisms) and describe protocol and tunneling technology used? A standard VPN security model ensures confidentiality (through encryption), sender authentication (making sure the correct people are accessing your encrypted info), and integrity (to ensure the original server message hasn’t been tampered with).
- Do they have strict no-logging policies? Unless a VPN comes right out and says it won’t log any of your location data or browsing history, then you can’t trust them. They might only log a little info, but a little info can still be sold to marketers, used by hackers or government agencies.
- Do they have kill switches? Put simply, a kill switch will disconnect you from your current browsing session if anything bad happens. This prevents you from accidently surfing with an unprotected browser. After you’re alerted that your secure connection was killed, you simply log back on through your VPN, staying safe the entire time.
VPN Security Technology
Educate yourself on the many ways a VPN can successfully keep you safe online.
A typical web browser on an unsecure ISP will just blast your data all over the Internet, hoping it lands on the right server without being intercepted by bad actors. VPNs, by contrast, don’t carelessly beam your personal data openly over the Internet. Instead, the VPN intercepts your private data and encrypts it before your ISP or anyone can see it, and THEN sends it anonymously to your desination’s server.
Here’s a quick look at the most common security protocols. For more details, click on the “How VPNs Work” question in the FAQ.
- SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol). These are standard and tough protocols used by most VPNs, engineered on symmetric-key cryptography (a fancy word for code-making).
- L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol). There are reports of the American government’s ability to break this protocol and therefore see what kind of data (or browsing history) is being transmitted— so you should steer clear of a VPN that only offers this option.
- PPTP (Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol). Although reliable in function, the level of protection it offers is outdated and therefore not state-of-the-art.If your VPN gives you a choice among several different protocols, don’t use this one as your first bet.
- OpenVPN. It’s based on SSL/TLS encryption, but it’s an open-source, which means it’s continually being worked on by well-qualified developers from around the world who are passionate about security. One of the most reliable and adaptable protocols in use today.
- Secure Shell (SSH): SSH tunnels are what your VPN relies on when overcoming government censorship filters for various content portals.
When it comes to questions of safety, almost any VPN you use will be safer and more secure than a standard ISP’s web browser. That said, there are several VPNs you probably shouldn’t trust (especially the free ones), while there are several of respected and trusted VPNs that millions of people use safely every day, around the world.
Of course, nothing is 100 percent impenetrable. Even the CIA has been hacked before. But, with a trustworthy paid VPN subscription, you can enjoy military grade encryption, fast browsing and download speeds, and bank-quality security protocols that will keep you as private, safe and secure as possible.