Is a VPN Safe?

How to recognize trustworthy VPNs

While a virtual private network (VPN) allows you to browse the web via a private internet connection and encrypts and disguises your personal data, you may wonder, is a VPN safe? Here's a closer look at whether or not VPNs are safe to use and at what features and procedures make a VPN safe to begin with.

Photo of a turned on tablet or iPad showing that it is connected to a VPN. The tablet is sitting on a calendar next to a wallet that has credit cards in it.
Stefan Coders from Pixabay

Are VPNs Really Safe to Use

Generally speaking, VPNs can be safe to use if they have certain features and procedures in place. As the United States Federal Trade Commission notes, there are both benefits and risks to consider when using a VPN.

On one hand, VPNs can help protect your personal data by doing things like encrypting your web traffic, or "route your traffic through another network" in order to make it look like your traffic originates from another location. But on the other hand, the use of VPN networks and apps can be risky because you're giving the app permission to intercept all of your internet traffic.

This can be a huge vulnerability when you consider the fact that there have been instances in which VPN services have done some shady things like not use encryption, or, according to the FTC, have "shared data with third parties for purposes such as injecting or serving ads, or analyzing the data to see how people are using a particular site or service."

There also seems to be a growing consensus that free VPN services (though tempting) may not be the way to go if you want a safe and secure VPN browsing experience. Reports from both Slate and TechRadar seem to concur that free VPN apps and services tend to be riskier than paid VPN services and can result in security and privacy issues such as having your data collected and sold to third-parties by the VPN providers themselves.

So yes, VPNs can be safe to use, but you need to choose a VPN service provider carefully.

What Makes a VPN a Safe VPN: Features

VPN services can vary with the kinds of protection and features they offer. Here are a few features that can make your VPN safer to use than other VPNs.

  • Kill Switches: According to Tech.co, a kill switch prevents your device from connecting to the web via an unsecured connection in the event that your VPN connection fails. This can help prevent your personal data from being exposed to hackers on public Wi-Fi networks, even if your VPN connection doesn't work.
  • Multifactor Authentication: As cybersecurity company Norton by Symantec notes, this feature prevents hackers from gaining access to your VPN by requiring you provide multiple forms of proof of your identity (like a password and a temporary passcode that is sent via another form of communication).
  • Encryption: This should be a staple feature of any VPN service you use since encryption essentially hides your personal data from hackers. But it's worth noting the FTC does warn that not all VPN apps encrypt your data and that "some VPN apps use protocols that do not encrypt your traffic, or encrypt only some of your traffic." So you need to make sure that the service you choose at least encrypts the data you want protected, if not all of your data.

What Makes a VPN a Safe VPN: Procedures

Here are a couple of procedures and best practices you and safe VPNs should employ.

  • No-log/No Data Collection Policy: Generally speaking, the consensus is that the best VPN services will not collect your data. These VPNs are known as "no-log VPNs," meaning the VPN provider doesn't save any of your data, including personal details, where you go online, or your download and search history.
  • Requested App Permissions: The Federal Trade Commission also cautions consumers to pay attention to the permissions VPN apps request. If a VPN apps asks to access odd kinds of personal data (like your text messages), it may be worth considering finding another VPN app to use. VPN apps should really only be asking for permissions that are relevant to the service it's providing.