Whenever your computer, phone, or other device is connected to the internet, safety should be one of your top concerns. However, with an ever-increasing number and range of viruses and other malware attacks, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to protecting your computer from threats.
A VPN, or virtual private network, is an incredible tool with a wide range of applications. Research has shown that at least 1.2 billion people around the world use a VPN, and its popularity is growing rapidly.
Although it can’t solve all of your security problems (for a comprehensive approach to security, you’ll need a strong antivirus software solution), a VPN can protect your internet traffic and identity from a wide range of threats.
Read on to find out what kind of attacks a VPN can prevent, how it works, and what its limitations are.
Key Points: How & What Does a VPN Protect You From?
- Although a VPN isn’t a magic shield against all potential dangers, using a VPN can protect you from an impressive range of online threats.
- These include many types of hacking, man-in-the-middle and DDoS attacks, fake WiFi hotspots, and much more.
- Even if you are protecting your device and your privacy with a VPN, it’s important to remain vigilant and careful when you’re browsing online – a VPN can’t protect you from your own error.
What Does a VPN Prevent?
Although a VPN can’t protect you from every potential threat, it can prevent an impressively wide range of malicious attacks – particularly those that use WiFi or other internet connection-related techniques to get ahold of your private information.
So, what exactly can a VPN help protect you from?
Some Types of Hacking
First of all, it’s important to note that a VPN can’t protect you from every kind of hacking. With that said, a VPN can protect you from a pretty impressive range of hacking threats.
First, by disguising your IP address, a VPN makes it effectively impossible for malicious actors to track your computer’s location.
One of the most common, tried-and-true remote hacking methods involves gaining access to your computer’s system through its IP address.
Considering that pretty much every website you visit tracks your device’s IP address (yes, that includes phones and tablets as well), if any of those websites have been infiltrated by a hacker, it’s only too easy for them to obtain your IP address and use it to get into your computer system.
Thus, by masking your device’s real IP address, a VPN can keep your device protected from this all-too-common type of hacking.
A man-in-the-middle attack is exactly what it sounds like: a hacker intercepts your internet traffic “in the middle”, when your device is communicating with a website or web server.
Man-in-the-middle attacks are particularly dangerous because they can easily be used to steal your private information, including passwords, files, online banking and credit card information, and much more.
Although man-in-the-middle attacks aren’t impossible when using a private WiFi connection (such as the WiFi in your home), they are particularly likely when you’re using an open, public WiFi connection, such as those found in cafés, restaurants, libraries, universities, or other public spaces.
This is because it’s advantageous for hackers to target public WiFi connections that large numbers of people connect to every day. Additionally, most WiFi – both public and private – use an encryption standard called WPA2, which is, unfortunately, one of the lowest security standards.
So, how does a VPN protect you from man-in-the-middle attacks? By creating an encrypted tunnel for your internet traffic to travel through, it makes it very difficult for your internet traffic to be intercepted and stolen.
As such, it’s always advisable to run your internet traffic through a VPN whenever you’re connecting your device to a public WiFi network.
DDoS, or Distributed Denial of Service attacks, are another form of hacking that a VPN can successfully prevent.
In a DDoS attack, hackers attempt to overwhelm your system by flooding it with requests and uninvited traffic. This causes the system to crash, which can either force you offline or make it impossible for you to access a particular website.
DDoS attacks are unfortunately becoming more common, as they aren’t particularly difficult for even entry-level hackers to execute. However, using a VPN can protect you from DDoS attacks in the same way it protects you from other forms of hacking: by disguising your IP address.
In order for a DDoS attack to target your device, it has to know your real IP address first. As long as you consistently use a VPN when connecting to the internet, malicious actors will have no way of gaining access to your real IP address.
Fake WiFi Hotspots
Another risk that your VPN can help mitigate is fake WiFi hotspots. Also known as an “evil twin” hotspot, a fake WiFi hotspot is created by a hacker to carefully mimic the exact look of a legitimate WiFi hotspot, right down to identifying details like the SSID (service set identifier or name of the WiFi network).
For example, let’s say you’re sitting in a café called Main Street Café. You ask the barista which WiFi network to connect to, and she tells you it’s a network called mainstreetcafe123. If a hacker has set up a fake WiFi hotspot to target traffic coming from this location, the fake hotspot can also be called mainstreetcafe123.
As soon as you connect your device, the hacker will have easy access to all of your internet traffic. That means they can steal your passwords, account names, and any files you download or upload while you’re connected to their network.
So how can a VPN protect you from this? After all, didn’t you unwittingly choose to connect to the fake network?
The key to protection in this situation is the fact that a VPN encrypts all of your internet traffic and all communication between your device and any web servers. Thus, even if you do accidentally connect to a fake WiFi network, hackers still won’t be able to capture or see anything that you’re doing online.
How Does a VPN Protect You From Hacking?
A VPN works on two basic levels:
- by disguising your IP address (the address that identifies and locates your computer), AND
- by creating an encrypted tunnel for your internet traffic to go through.
Some VPN providers offer even further levels of protection, but this is the general idea. Since gaining access to your device’s IP address is one of the most common methods of hacking, disguising it from hackers is a great way to protect yourself.
Further, channeling all of your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel helps keep your information safe even if your system is compromised.
What Else Does a VPN Protect?
In addition to protection from hackers, a VPN is also an invaluable tool for protecting your privacy when you’re surfing the web.
By encrypting your traffic, a VPN helps keep your searches, downloads, and other activities hidden from prying eyes. There’s a huge market out there for all of our private data, and most websites collect information about who accessed them and what they did.
When you’re using a VPN, your activity on the internet won’t be visible to most websites that track your searches and purchasing behavior to target you for advertising.
This means no more annoying ads that pop up on the side of your web browser the second you search for a product or related keyword.
How Does a VPN Protect Your Privacy?
To summarize, a VPN protects your privacy primarily by disguising your IP address and creating a safe, encrypted passage for your internet traffic to travel through.
If hackers and other malware can’t see what you’re doing online, they can’t steal it. Similarly, if adware and websites that track visitors’ activities can’t see what you’re doing, they can’t target you for advertising.
Privacy is getting harder and harder to preserve when you’re online, but using a VPN is a simple, relatively inexpensive way to protect your online activities from prying eyes.
What Won't a VPN Protect You From?
All of this sounds amazing, but let’s not get too carried away: a VPN can’t protect you from every kind of threat, and it’s important to be realistic about what it can and can’t do.
Unfortunately, a VPN can’t protect you from yourself. The IBM Cyber Security Index has reported that a whopping 95% of all cybersecurity breaches are caused by human error.
This usually comes in the form of malware that people have unintentionally installed on their own devices or phishing schemes, where people are tricked into giving up their passwords to malicious actors.
In other words, the overwhelming majority of attacks are accidentally enabled by people who don’t realize what they’re doing. Unfortunately, a VPN can’t stop you from doing something that you’ve willingly chosen to do, which is why it’s crucial to stay vigilant and skeptical whenever you’re online.
A good rule of thumb is that if something seems fishy, you should trust your gut and stay away from it.
The other thing that a VPN can’t protect you from is itself. If you’ve chosen an untrustworthy VPN provider, your device’s security will very likely be compromised.
That’s why it’s extremely important to do the research and choose a trustworthy, highly secure VPN provider.
This generally means being willing to pay for quality. There are a ton of free VPNs on the market, but as the old saying goes, there’s really no such thing as a free lunch: these “free” VPNs are making money somehow, and it’s usually by selling their users’ data to third parties.
If you’re looking for a VPN and you’re not sure where to start looking, you can check out my list of the best VPN providers on the market today.
What does a VPN protect you from on public WiFi?
There are a number of threats you should be aware of when using public WiFi, and a VPN can help protect you against most of these.
Man-in-the-middle attacks, where a hacker has set up the ability to intercept internet traffic “in the middle” (when your device is communicating with a site or webserver), are particularly common on public WiFi networks.
There is also the risk of fake WiFi hotspots that hackers create to mimic a real public WiFi connection.
Using a VPN can prevent your information from being stolen in either of these types of attacks by encrypting your internet traffic so that it can’t be viewed.
Does a VPN protect you from viruses?
A VPN can protect you from some types of viruses, but not all. If a virus requires access to your IP address in order to infiltrate your device, then a VPN can effectively prevent this by masking your real IP address.
Similarly, a VPN can be effective against DDoS attacks for the same reason.
However, a VPN can’t stop a virus that you’ve willingly (but unintentionally, of course) installed on your own computer in the form of an infected file or another type of malware.
Does a VPN protect you from the government?
All around the world, people use VPNs to circumvent government restrictions on information. In addition to getting around censorship, a VPN can make it very difficult for anyone to track your online activity, be it hackers, your internet service provider, or the government.
Very difficult, but not impossible. If someone – particularly the government – is really determined to track your activity online, it takes a lot of effort and vigilance to avoid them.
For that reason, it’s best to not let a VPN lure you into a false sense of security.
It’s not a magic shield, and if for any reason you feel your activities (online or offline) could garner negative interest from the government, you’re probably going to need a more sophisticated suite of tools and methods to stay truly anonymous.
Does a VPN protect you from being hacked?
To put it simply, it depends on the type of hacking we’re talking about. A VPN can protect against some of the most common hacking techniques, such as DDoS and man-in-the-middle attacks.
This is because a VPN disguises your device’s real IP address, which is the “back door” that many hackers use to gain access to your system.
However, an IP address isn’t the only way to hack a device. Hacking is a constantly developing field, and a VPN can’t protect you from everything. That’s why it’s important to remain vigilant whenever you’re online and to invest in other security solutions, such as good antivirus software.
Does a VPN protect you from cookies?
In short, no. Although a VPN can go a long way towards protecting your anonymity online, it cannot prevent you from being tracked by cookies.
However, it does, in a sense, mislead the cookies, because it gives them false information about your device’s location and identity. Because a VPN routes your internet through foreign servers, some (but not all) of the information that cookies are designed to gather will be false.
Does a VPN protect you from your employer?
It depends on what you mean. No, a VPN won’t protect you from your boss looking over your shoulder at whatever you’re doing during work hours.
However, a VPN does protect your data from being accessed or collected by your employer, even when you’re connected to the company WiFi network.
Does a VPN protect you from Facebook?
Facebook is one of the most notorious collectors of personal data. The social media company now known as Meta has been slapped with multiple lawsuits related to privacy and mishandling its users’ data and has settled for millions of dollars in damages.
Meta seems to have decided to continue paying settlements rather than change its practices, and many people are frustrated by the fact that using Facebook seems to mean necessarily accepting that your data is going to be sold to third parties.
So, can using a VPN stop Facebook from tracking you? Unfortunately, the answer is generally no; a VPN does not stop Facebook from tracking your activities on their site.
There are a few exceptions: for example, if you are extremely careful to log out of Facebook and use a browser with the privacy settings enabled while using a VPN, then you can potentially circumvent Facebook’s tracking.
However, even if you are this vigilant, Facebook still has other ways of tracking your online activities.
All in all, if you don’t want Facebook to track what you do online, the best thing you can do is not use it.
Does a VPN protect you from fake hotspots?
Although a VPN can’t stop your device from connecting to fake hotspots, it does encrypt your internet connection so that your activities are safe and invisible to whoever created the fake hotspot.
In other words, as long as you’re using the VPN consistently, your private information should be protected if you’re connected to a fake hotspot.
Does a VPN protect you when torrenting?
Since some ISPs block popular torrenting sites, using a VPN is a reliable way to circumvent these restrictions while also adding a much-needed layer of protection for your device while you’re torrenting.
However, not every VPN provider allows you to torrent while using their service, so it’s important to make sure you check out whether torrenting is supported when you’re shopping around for a VPN provider.
One of the best and most affordable VPNs for torrenting is CyberGhost (you can check out my full CyberGhost review for more information).
There are tons of benefits that you can reap from using a VPN, from majorly increased security and privacy when you’re online to the ability to disguise your location and connect to the internet through foreign servers.
Although VPNs aren’t magical shields that can protect you from everything, there are tons of everyday threats that can be neutralized simply by using a VPN. These include having your private information stolen by DDoS attacks, man-in-the-middle attacks, and fake WiFi hotspots.
A VPN can also help you avoid being tracked online (with some limitations and exceptions) and makes it easy to bypass ISP restrictions and geo-blocking.
All in all, in a world of ever-increasing security threats, investing in a trusted, high-quality VPN is a fantastic and almost effort-free way to stay protected while you’re online.