In the last couple years, we have become more aware of and more concerned about all the people who watch us when we’re online. Big tech companies, like Google and Facebook, use our personal information to sell targeted ads. They listen in on our conversations with Alexa. Governments can use our internet traffic, stored at the ISP, to spy on us. Sometimes, it’s some nefarious character monitoring traffic on public WIFI.
What can you do to protect yourself? You need a VPN.
What Is A VPN?
VPN stands for a Virtual Private Network, and this technology has been securing internet privacy since 1996, when Microsoft invented the Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol.
A VPN is a way to direct your traffic through a server and then to the rest of the internet. It starts with an app. You download the app from your VPN service, and start it up. The VPN app encrypts your traffic and connects you to a VPN server somewhere around the world. The VPN server then directs your traffic to whatever website or service you want.
That means your ISP records one server in your activity: the VPN server. Plus, anyone who wants to “listen in” on your internet traffic gets only encrypted data.
Large corporations frequently use VPN’s to keep their private data secure, especially when their workers are out in the field, using someone else’s internet service. But it’s not just the big players who want that kind of security. Individuals need it, too. A VPN service is the best way for a regular person to keep his private data private.
Can A VPN Be Hacked?
Of course. Anything can be hacked. We frequently hear about major hacks on companies that have, or should have, great security. With enough time and effort, nearly anything can be hacked. When you’re on a VPN there are four ways that it can be hacked.
When you connect to a VPN, the app encrypts your traffic. Unless they’ve cracked your encryption, there’s no way to read it. It’s much easier to find a way to monitor your device, like your computer or phone, than to crack the VPN.
There are a lot of ways that people can hack your device. They can get your password, especially if you’ve chosen a weak password based on your personal information. they can trick you into clicking on a phishing link or downloading a virus. However it happens, your device is usually the weakest link.
The VPN’s Encryption
If you haven’t been hacked, the VPN app should encrypt your traffic as it heads out the VPN server and then to the internet. The VPN’s encryption is the next vulnerability. If someone cracks the VPN encryption, he can listen in on your traffic between the VPN server and your device.
The most famous crack of VPN encryption came from the NSA. When Edward Snowden revealed the now famous scheme to listen in on everyone’s internet traffic, he also showed us that the NSA can crack just about any kind of encryption.
Baring government hacking, there are ways to make your VPN more or less secure. VPN’s use different encryption protocols to keep your data safe. Here are the most frequently used:
- Point to Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)
- Layer Two Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)
- Internet Protocol Security (IPSec)
- OpenVPN (SSL/TLS)
While every protocol has its advantages and disadvantages, it’s widely recognized that OpenVPN is the best general protocol. If you don’t want to dive deeply into encryption, just go with a VPN that uses that one.
The VPN Server
The next point of vulnerability is the VPN server. When your encrypted traffic goes out from your device, it has to be unscrambled by the VPN server to correctly direct it wherever it’s supposed to go.
Just like any server, a VPN server can be hacked. Every VPN has security measures to protect your data, but not all are the same. Some VPN’s, especially the free ones, monitor your activity to sell ads. When they do that, they keep a log of the sites you visit. Once a hacker breaks into the VPN, he can easily access those logs.
Facebook famously started a VPN service, but they heavily monitored their users traffic. It might be safe from the ISP’s, but Facebook sure knew what everyone was doing.
If your VPN service has a “no log” policy (you should read the fine print on what that means), a hacker can monitor any traffic that goes through the compromised server.
The Websites You Visit
There are lots of ways people monitor our internet traffic, but the most frequent way is through cookies. Even if you’re running a VPN, cookies can track your information, so vigilance is necessary if you want to stay secure.
Others can monitor your traffic with that specific website it their servers are compromised. If you go to your favorite yarn website, they might be able to get some of your profile information and use that to track you.
You can help protect your traffic by using websites that have their own encryption protocols. Usually, that means using a website that has an https: rather than an http: in its URL. The difference between the two is simple: http: is an unencrypted protocol while https: is encrypted. With this, at least you know that it’s harder to crack your traffic from the VPN to the websites you visit.
How Can I Stay Safe?
If you’re getting your security advice from this website, it’s unlikely that you will get hacked. The most important security tool is being a normal, average human being. What do I mean? Regular people aren’t high-priority targets.
Hackers will target corporations to steal their intellectual property or to infiltrate their customer records. They’re going to go after government offices to grab personal information. They will try to siphon money from billionaires or blackmail them over affairs. Your traffic is a low priority, because you probably won’t be a big payoff for all that work.
A VPN Still Makes You More Secure
While a VPN can’t make you perfectly secure, it does improve your security and privacy. Some nefarious ne’er-do-wells do a large-scale drag for financial information. They can monitor public WIFI traffic or set up rogue WIFI networks that mimic legitimate ones. The hope to catch as much of everyone’s information as they can. A VPN stops that kind of hacking by encrypting your data on its way to the VPN server.
There are lots of reasons to use a VPN whether at home, on a public network, or even at a friend’s house. It’s an extra level of security to hide your traffic from prying eyes. You protect your information from people who try to get it through your local network. You can hide your traffic from your ISP, which means there will be no record of your traffic should anyone get their hands on the leg. While a VPN isn’t a magic bullet to defend your privacy, it does make it much more difficult for someone to get your private information.