Does a VPN really keep you safe online?

Short answer… no. Let me explain. A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a service that allows you to tunnel your traffic through an encrypted tunnel to another point on the internet. Many VPN providers will have servers in countries all over the world so you can appear to be almost anywhere in the world. Now you would think with the whole “encrypted tunnel” that everyone should use a VPN. Maybe first we need to talk about what happens when you use the internet.

You might access websites like Facebook or maybe your bank from your computer on a regular basis. Those connections go over a transport system called HTTPS. Think of this as the “secure” version of the internet. You can usually see a nice padlock in your browser’s address bar, this means that all the traffic from your computer to the site is encrypted. Meaning that no one can see what you see (yes, I’m aware of attacks that can be used, but I’m not going into those today). Now, when you type in into your browser the first thing it does is makes a call to your DNS (Domain Name Service) provider. This is a system that translates names like into an address your computer can understand, like is an address used by Facebook. In most cases, this search for it done in plain text to your Internet Service Provider, or ISP, which means that your ISP knows you want to go to and they can also see you access that site, they can’t see the content you see, just that you went there. Now you might think, why would they care where I go? They usually don’t, but some people like the privacy of their ISP not knowing what sites you visit. That is where a VPN can come in handy.

A VPN will encrypt all that traffic and hide it from your ISP, even those DNS requests. Not even Facebook would know your home IP address, but they still know everything else about you because you logged into your account. All the ad trackers out there will still know who you are due to things like cookies stored in your browser. A VPN doesn’t stop that from happening.

So why use a VPN? There are a number of reasons to use a VPN, some people like hiding from their ISP, or their local government (remember, your ISP will still see you made a connection to a VPN provider somewhere, but that is the extent of what they will see), maybe you need to access something not available in your country or region. I’ve seen people use VPNs to log into Netflix while in another country so they can see shows only available at home. Don’t use a VPN if you think it is going to keep Facebook from tracking you, that is a marketing tactic to sell you on VPN services. It doesn’t matter where you are from, when you log into Facebook, they know who you are. All a VPN does is make you appear to be from somewhere you are not. I repeat, a VPN will NOT keep you 100% safe online, it only makes your internet traffic appear to be coming from somewhere else.

Should you have a VPN anyway? Why not. They aren’t a bad thing, I use several with my work to test out page loading times from around the world, or even to securely login my work from home so I can access things only available if I were in the office.

“I heard you should use a VPN while traveling or at the coffee shop, is that true?” Absolutely! Those networks can be considered unsafe and can use attacks against you to trick your computer into talking to theirs so they can steal information from you. Now chances of that happening are very low, but never zero. A VPN in this case would be a good thing because then no one on that network can see what you are doing or potentially steal information from you. Also be sure your computer is up to date and the firewall is setup for public networks, this will also help you stay safe in those environments.

Remember, the internet is a dangerous place, there are a lot of people out there who want to take everything from you, as I said earlier, and a VPN will NOT keep you 100% safe online, that requires work on your part and the diligence to pay attention to sites you visit and what information you put out there. Stay safe everybody!