How a VPN can protect your online privacy

How a VPN can protect your online privacy

Have you ever experienced the feeling of relief that comes when you do something silly, but you’re glad you did it where people don’t know you? Or maybe you wished you were somewhere like that, but alas…

That is what a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can do for you: it can put you in a place where you are unknown.

To determine if and when you need a VPN, you must define what your goal is. If your main goal is to improve your privacy online, then a VPN is one of the possible solutions. Privacy is a right that is yours to value and defend. If you don’t fall into the categories of people who say “I have nothing to hide” or “they already know everything about me” then you may care enough about your privacy to use a VPN.

For the latest Malwarebytes Labs reader survey we asked “Do you use a VPN?” 2,330 responded and an impressive 36 percent said they now used a VPN. For perspective, ten years ago, only 1.5 percent of Americans used VPNs.

So, how does a VPN work?

In short and easy terms, a VPN acts as a middle-man between a user and the Internet. When the user wants to visit a site, they send information to the VPN over an encrypted connection, the VPN visits the site, and then it sends the data to the user over the same encrypted connection. These connections are not limited to web browsing, even though that is the first one that usually comes to mind.

In this post we will focus on the consumer using a VPN to browse the web. But it is good to know that many organizations use a VPN to allow secure, remote access to company resources. For example, an employee working from home can log in on a VPN to get access to systems, files or email, for example.

Hide your IP address

Your IP address is the address your home network uses on the Internet. It is usually assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). The first thing a website you visit will receive is your IP address, because it’s the return address for the information that you requested. If you are using a VPN the website will receive the IP address of the VPN server instead. The VPN will reroute the information so that it reaches your screen, without the website ever seeing your IP address.

Not everyone is willing to share their IP address because it can be used to determine their approximate location, and to identify their ISP (who can, in turn, identify who the IP is assigned to).

Hide your traffic from your ISP

Speaking of which, people who distrust their ISP and don’t want them to know which sites they’re visiting, route their traffic through a VPN. The encrypted tunnel between the user and the VPN stops anyone, including their ISP, from seeing their traffic. And this isn’t a theoretical or unlikely problem: In the USA ISPs can sell information about their users’ browsing habits to the highest bidder.

If you use a VPN to hide your traffic from your ISP it’s important to keep in mind that you are now putting your trust in the hands of that VPN provider instead. In theory, the VPN provider can now track your online behavior.

Pretend to be in another country

Another reason we often hear for using a VPN, is when you want to pretend you are in another country. Certainly, a VPN is the easiest solution to accomplish that. Some websites or services are only available in certain territories (geofenced), so pretending to be somewhere you aren’t can give you access to resources that would otherwise be hidden from you.

no access for your country

Imagine being a foreign correspondent in a country where news media from abroad are blocked or redacted. Or you are having a vacation in a country where Facebook is forbidden, and you want to check up on your family and friends. That is where using a VPN comes in very handy. Keep in mind however that in many such countries the use of a VPN is forbidden as well and using one could get you into trouble.

Disadvantages of using a VPN

So far, we have discussed the advantages and reasons for choosing a VPN. Why does there always have to be a downside? In this case, it’s a typical you win some, you lose some scenario.

  • It can make browsing slower. Even though Internet traffic can theoretically move at the speed of light, taking a detour takes time. Using a VPN can have a performance impact that varies from hardly noticeable to considerable. Another point to research when you are deciding which one to use.
  • Some websites will block known VPN servers. Usually this is for reasons that would be grounds for not wanting to visit those sites anyway, but it can be annoying to disable your VPN for a specific site.
  • Some sites don’t work correctly. Some sites are designed without considering that a visitor might be using a VPN. This can sometimes result in a partial loss of the information being sent back and forth so you may have to fill out a form twice or you may have to temporarily disable the VPN to complete the data transaction.
  • Overconfidence can come back to bite you. Just because you are hiding behind a VPN, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find out who you are. And if your actions might put you in danger where you are using the VPN, some extra measures may be needed.

Choosing a VPN

To achieve the goal of enhancing privacy it is most important to choose a VPN that you can trust. A VPN provider that logs your activities and either sells them to advertisers or surrenders them to the authorities may not have the same goals as you do.

Another important feature for a VPN is that it encrypts the traffic between your computer and the VPN server, so that nobody can tap into the connection to find out what you are doing. That encryption stops at the VPN server, so anyone with access to that server can see see or modify the traffic. Again, putting too much trust in such a feature can prove to be misguided.

To go back to our comparison, even if they can’t conclusively prove that it was you, sometimes a strong suspicion can be just as damaging for your reputation.

Stay safe, everyone!


Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.