If you’ve ever seen an ad for a VPN on TV or on the internet, you might think that these are the be-all and end-all of privacy tools. But the reality is very different from what VPN marketers would like you to think. Here’s what you need to know.
Myth: VPNs Are a Bulletproof Way to Protect Your Privacy
Fact: VPNs Are Just One Part of a Larger Toolkit
Myth: VPNs Don't Collect Data
Fact: You're Taking No-Log Pledges at Face Value
Myth: VPNs Will Protect You Against Hackers
Fact: VPNs Will Protect You from Public Wi-Fi Hijacking
Myth: VPNs Can Get Me Past Regional Restrictions
Fact: Netflix and Other Streaming Services May Be a Step Ahead
Let’s get the biggest issue out of the way first: No matter what any VPN provider tells you on their homepage, no VPN can guarantee you complete online anonymity. Thing is, VPNs in essence do one thing, and one thing only: Spoof your IP address and make it appear you’re somewhere you’re not.
You can read all about how they do this in our article on how VPNs work, but in short, a VPN reroutes your internet traffic through one of the VPN company’s own servers and encrypts that new connection. This keeps you safe from anybody trying to figure out who you are by tracing your IP address.
There are plenty of other ways you can be tracked, like through browser fingerprinting, or through your Facebook and Google accounts. A VPN does nothing to prevent these kinds of tracking as they aren’t dependent on knowing your location.
As such, VPNs are just one tool in your larger arsenal, albeit an important part. If you’re using a VPN first and foremost as a privacy tool, you should also consistently use incognito mode to sign you out of Facebook, Google, and other online accounts. Use all these programs together, and you can move around the internet leaving very few traces behind.
Here’s another big one: Most VPNs will have some kind of promise to never keep logs plastered all over their website. “Logs” in this case means a record of you connecting to the VPN and from there onward to whatever site you wish. It’s important that VPNs not keep logs as they are the only thing connecting you to what you were doing on the internet.
If logs are kept, then that means that anybody who wants to know what you were up to—usually marketers, but also the authorities in some cases—can call up your logs, as long as they have the VPN’s consent or a warrant. If the VPN keeps no logs, then a search would turn up nothing but empty log files.
However, the idea of a VPN that never keeps logs is a bit problematic. As we discuss in our article about no-log VPNs, actually never keeping any logs is tricky as the internet doesn’t work that way, there has to be some record somewhere of a connection. Instead, what most VPNs do is delete the logs as soon as they’re made, but we guess “no-log VPN” makes for better marketing copy than “delete-log VPN.”
Despite this technicality, there’s also another issue: There’s no good way of checking if logs are truly not being kept, all the claims of independent security audits to the contrary. Proving a negative is hard enough—if not impossible—and it’s made even harder by the fact that the service in question could just move the log files during the audit.
In the end, you’re really just taking VPNs at their word that they won’t collect your data. The best thing you can do is make sure that they don’t have a history of privacy breaches and also sign up to VPNs anonymously, or at least as much as you can.
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The next myth we want to tackle is thankfully on the way out, but it’s still present enough that we want to tackle it: Using a VPN will not protect you from “hackers,” no matter what some untrustworthy VPNs or VPN advertorial sites claim. Whether or not your credit card information, physical address, and other information gets stolen is not down to whether or not you use a VPN.
This is because this kind of information is usually sent over a HTTPS connection, the lock symbol you can probably see in the left of your address bar right now. This means that the information you send to a site via your browser is secured—it has nothing to do with the connection. Because of this, a VPN is of no use to you if identity theft is a major source of concern for you.
We have a suspicion that this common misunderstanding comes from the one type of hacker that a VPN will protect you from, namely the kind that hijacks a public Wi-Fi connection and steals your data that way. In these very specific cases, a VPN will protect you as the people trying to hijack your connection will only see the VPN connection and nothing past that.
The last myth is one that relates to getting past regional restrictions, especially those on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and a host of others. Most VPN services will have you believe that all you need to do is hand over some money to them and you’ll be able to access libraries of other countries, unlocking tons more content than what’s available in your own country.
This is blatantly untrue. Streaming services have a vested interest in making sure people don’t jump borders with their VPNs. Most will have agreements set up with distributors to ensure certain content is restricted to specific regions, and as such have put up some pretty high-end VPN detection software.
If you want to use a VPN with Netflix, you still can, but you can’t always count on it to work. Our favorite service for this is ExpressVPN, but even it has run into some trouble lately. As such, expect some frustration if streaming is your main reason for getting a VPN.