VPN technology is a catch-22. In the cybersecurity milieu, when it comes to one of the industry’s most popular and popularized tools, the Virtual Private Network, we know that VPNs are not perfect, but at the same time, we lean on the technology to keep us safe and private.
VPNs have been born in the very technical cybersecurity industry and are celebrating 25 years in the industry this year. This industry, a decade ago, was nowhere near as commercialized and widespread as it is today. VPNs were a specialized set of tools restricted to IT professionals and cybersecurity departments and were of no interest to the common computer user. Alas, VPNs would soon become even more popular and widely known than antivirus programs and firewalls. This comes as no surprise because technological developments are almost always eventually commercialized.
Nowadays, most people who know computers and the internet to some degree have heard of VPNs because services and products relating to data security and privacy have blown up during this decade, becoming massively adopted for home use. VPN vendors now have a much larger playing field when catering to home users, which has in return sprouted hundreds of different VPN companies and even allowed the players to become successful sponsors and place ads on major platforms. As a result, this trampolined the sector skyward, raking in hundreds of millions in profit every year.
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network or VPN is a cybersecurity software that is readily available today for any platform and any device that deals with outgoing and incoming internet traffic. VPNs can come in corporate and home use flavors -professional and consumer, respectively. Both types of VPN software function via the same design, which is to cloak the internet transmission at the source by placing it on a specialized encrypted server, thereby acting as a middleman that obfuscates the connection on both ends -the ISP-facing side and the internet-facing site. This is akin to having your friend go shopping for you, therefore delivering you the goods but removing you from the process. In much the same way, you can browse and interact with the internet without technically being present.
Effectively, this garbles the information that the ISP and the website on the internet can gather about user browsing activity and the physical location of the user’s computer. This makes it difficult for ISPs, governments, websites, data collection algorithms, and marketers to scrape information from user browsing activity such as information released by the browser and the exact IP address of the user.
Modern VPNs have taken it even further than this, becoming very sophisticated. Today, they offer very advanced functions and options such as high-end military-grade encryption protocols, strict no-log policies, as well as other options such as kill switches for a total cybersecurity package. Modern VPNs also offer a large choice of servers all over the world, even specialized servers offering extreme obfuscation and anonymity for the user to choose from.
What Are The Limitations of a VPN?
There is a huge choice of VPNs available on the online markets, whether that be the App Store, Play Store, or as a direct download. Albeit, it is important to caution readers about two facts before anyone jumps on the VPN bandwagon; firstly not every VPN is created equal, and secondly, no VPN is perfect. Thirdly, a VPN should optimally be used in conjunction with other cybersecurity solutions and common sense, because it is not a one-stop-shop for online safety nor has it ever been. Last but not least, it is critical to understand that one should be very careful when relying on a free VPN, as the risks of illegitimate and shady business conducted by free VPN vendors are all too well known. Premium VPNs that are a paid service have to stick to some standards and policies after all.
As far as the limitations of VPNs go, the following is a comprehensive list to cross-check and research anytime a VPN is downloaded;
- By re-routing all internet traffic through a VPN, the user is placing complete trust with the VPN vendor with all of his or her personal and sensitive information
- Commercialization means that a VPN provider may be dishonest about what they are offering, and what they are logging
- A VPN vendor can be breached by hackers just like any other software can, which puts user data at risk
- A good VPN will not have DNS or WebRTC leaks, but a lot of them do
- A good VPN will have verified servers that are fast and reliable
- A VPN vendor may sell user information
- A good VPN must offer verified high-grade encryption algorithms
- A good VPN provider will be transparent about their security audits
- A good VPN provider will have a clean sheet when it comes to court cases
How to Determine If Your VPN is Solid
There are a few tried-and-tested ways to confirm the dependability of a chosen VPN;
- Reading through and scrutinizing the VPN software’s data and privacy policies
- Ensuring that a reputable, premium VPN is being used by doing research beforehand
- Testing the anonymity level of the connection with specialized online tools
Sticking to common sense while browsing the internet means being careful what you download and what information you put out there about yourself. It also means being very pedantic about passwords and your internet connection. To that end, a host of ‘anonymity checkers’ can be found via a simple search that will indicate if your VPN has any leaks and whether it is successfully hiding your IP address as advertised. It is best to pass your connection through several of these checkers which should give you a full breakdown of any gaping security holes in your chosen VPN service.
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