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  • Writer's pictureNick Mellem

VPN Cybersecurity Risks and How to Stay Secure

Updated: Feb 28

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have emerged as indispensable tools for individuals, businesses, and organizations alike, and with over 12 years of experience in the field since departing from the Marine Corps, I often encounter questions about the safety of these services. My name is Nick Mellem, and in this article, I share the fundamentals of VPN technology, its applications, benefits, and considerations, illuminating the pivotal role it plays in fostering a safer, more private online experience. 


What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)? 

A VPN is a piece of software that forms a private tunnel between your computer and the internet. In an ideal state, this tunnel operates like a secure, bi-directional passage, allowing data to travel encrypted and unseen by others. The virtual aspect of it means this connection can be dynamically established and removed from any internet location, be it at home or work. By creating this private tunnel, a VPN ensures that data transferring from your computer exits at a different point on the internet without interception, maintaining privacy and security. 


Why is this important?  


When using the internet, our data traverses multiple networks and various nodes – from our device to the ISP and beyond. This process is akin to sending a package through the postal service, where it's handled at multiple points before reaching its destination. Without protection, this data, like an unsecured package, is vulnerable to being intercepted and viewed.  


In theory, a VPN acts as a secure transport mechanism, encrypting your data and making it inaccessible to unauthorized parties. While VPNs provide a layer of security, they are not infallible.    


...and if video is your preferred method of learning, check out this quick podcast clip on the topic:



What are the cybersecurity risks of using a VPN?  

While VPNs can enhance online privacy and security through encryption and anonymity, they also present certain cybersecurity risks that you must be aware of. 


Provider Trustworthiness

A crucial aspect of using VPNs is the reliability and security of your service provider. It's a common misconception that all VPNs offer the same level of privacy and security. In reality, some VPN services, particularly free ones, may not have your best interest at heart. Some providers log user activity or employ inadequate security practices, leading to data breaches. Ironically, the tool you use to protect your privacy could end up being a weak link if the provider isn't trustworthy or if their security infrastructure is lacking. 


Configuration and Management Challenges

Proper configuration of VPNs is critical. Misconfigured VPNs can create vulnerabilities in a network, exposing you to potential threats. Regular and expert management of the VPN setup is essential to ensure it serves its purpose without compromising security.   Check out the following article from Tech Radar on How to Set Up a VPN.  


Encryption Standards and Unauthorized Access

Some VPNs use outdated encryption, making them susceptible to advanced decryption methods by malicious actors. Furthermore, if a device connected to a VPN is compromised, it can give attackers access to your private network, effectively bypassing many security measures. 


How you can be tracked, even when using a VPN 

As we mentioned, understanding the limitations of VPNs is crucial, especially when it comes to the potential for user tracking and data collection. A VPN is not an infallible shield, here are a few ways you can still be tracked, even while using one. 


Browser Fingerprinting: A Persistent Threat 

One of the most significant ways users can be tracked, even when using a VPN, is through browser fingerprinting. This technique involves collecting detailed information about your browser and device, such as screen resolution, installed fonts, and browser extensions. This data can create a unique "fingerprint," making it possible to identify and track users across different websites, irrespective of their IP address being masked by a VPN. This method of tracking is particularly insidious because it bypasses the IP anonymity enabled by VPNs and relies on information that most users unknowingly provide to websites. 


The Occasional VPN Disconnect: A Window for ISPs 

Another point of vulnerability arises from inconsistent VPN usage. While a VPN can effectively hide your online activities from your ISP when it's active, any lapse in its use – even momentarily – can expose your data. During these periods, ISPs can collect information about your browsing habits, which can be used for targeted advertising or potentially sold to third parties. This intermittent data collection might seem trivial, but over time, it can accumulate into a comprehensive profile of your online behavior, negating the privacy benefits of using a VPN. 


Free VPN Services: A Double-Edged Sword 

Lastly, as we mentioned in the previous section, the choice of VPN service cannot be understated. Free VPN services, while attractive for obvious reasons, often come with hidden costs in terms of privacy. These services may log and sell your browsing data, effectively turning the tool meant to protect your privacy into a conduit for data collection. This practice starkly contrasts with the ethos of reputable, paid VPN services that commit to stringent, no-logs policies and prioritize user privacy. 

  

How to select and manage a VPN  

To maximize security while using a VPN, it's essential to adopt a strategic approach in selecting, managing, and utilizing your VPN service. Here are key tactics to consider:  

  • Use Reputable Services: (You guessed it.) Be sure to avoid free VPNs as they often monetize their service through logging and selling your data. It's worth it to spend a few dollars on a reputable VPN service that prioritizes user privacy and security.  

  • Verify Server Locations: Select a VPN with servers located in countries with strong privacy laws. For instance, services like Proton VPN, based in Switzerland, offer enhanced privacy due to the country's stringent data protection regulations.  

  • Assess Bandwidth and Speed: Ensure the VPN service can handle your internet speed requirements, especially if you have a high-speed connection at home or work. A VPN with limited bandwidth can significantly slow down your internet experience.  

  • Regularly Update VPN Software: Keep your VPN software updated to protect against vulnerabilities. Regular updates often include patches for security flaws that could be exploited by attackers.  

  • Enable Kill Switch Feature: Use a VPN with a kill switch, which automatically disconnects your device from the internet if the VPN connection drops. This prevents your data from being exposed unintentionally.  

  • Use VPN on Secure Networks: While VPNs encrypt your data, using them on public or unsecured Wi-Fi networks can still pose risks. Do your best to use secure networks at all times.   

  • Choose a No-Log VPN Provider: Opt for a VPN service that has a strict no-log policy. This means the provider does not store records of your online activities, ensuring that your data remains private, even if the provider is subpoenaed or compromised.  

  • Implement Strong Authentication: Use strong, unique passwords for your VPN access. Consider enabling multi-factor authentication for an added layer of security.  

  • Regular Audits and Reviews: Periodically review your VPN settings and usage policies. Conduct audits to ensure the VPN is configured correctly and aligns with your current security needs. 

  

Conclusion 

It's crucial to recognize that while VPNs offer substantial benefits, they are not immune to vulnerabilities or misuse. Selecting a reputable VPN provider, understanding its limitations, and adhering to best practices are essential steps in maximizing the efficacy and security of VPN usage. 


As technology evolves and online risks continue to proliferate, the role of VPNs in promoting digital privacy and security is essential. By fostering ongoing dialogue, education, and innovation, we can collectively work towards a safer, more resilient internet. 


Looking to dive deeper into the topic of VPNs from a cybersecurity angle? I recommend the following articles from Tech Radar, as well as our recent episode of The Audit Podcast embedded below, or you can also check it out on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.


 

Until next time, over and out. 

- Nick Mellem 

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