There are several reasons to use a VPN while online. They range from a higher level of security particularly on public Wi-Fi, to bypassing a geo-restriction to stream video, or attempting to be more anonymous online. The overall theme is for better online privacy, hardly surprising given that it is part of the VPN’s name, as in a virtual privacy network.
However, just because we have our preferred VPN downloaded to our computer or a smartphone, this does not mean that it is working. Here’s how to go beyond the basics and confirm that that VPN is performing to standards.
Before we get to the more advanced techniques, let’s go over the basics. Research appropriately, paying attention to the number of VPN servers and locations, and the log policy. TechRadar’s Editor’s Choice for the VPN provider is ExpressVPN. With the software downloaded, be sure to activate the Kill Switch so that if the VPN goes down, the internet connection is disrupted as well to keep the protection active at all times the internet is being used.
Some users prefer to configure their VPN software to start on their PC whenever the computer is started, by default. It is still good to check on the software by opening it up, and making sure that it is active. Additionally, some VPN software has an icon that will sit in the Windows tray, and provide a visual indicator of the status, such as a small green check when it is operating, and a small red “X” when it is not.
Making sure that the VPN is on when you want it to be is a good first step to having the VPN connection address.
The IP address
Whenever you are using a device on the internet, it has an IP (Internet Protocol) Address that is visible. It is a string of numbers that gets assigned to the network device that then identifies it on the internet. It gets assigned by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), and it functions as a return address on a letter that gets sent out. As your device requests info, such as a web page, the IP Address of the device tells the network where this information needs to go.
While many users will never see their IP Address, it is actually quite info to get this piece of info. One simple method is to simply go to the Google search engine, simply put in the query “What’s my IP?” and your public IP address is displayed, usually as a series of four numbers separated by decimals.
A mildly more advanced method is to go to the website www.whatismyipaddress.com and it will display your IP Address. You will also get an indication if it is the older and more common IPv4 address, or the newer IPv6 address.
Check the VPN
Recall that a VPN creates an encrypted tunnel, routing your requests through the dedicated VPN server. Also realize that your IP address that gets displayed is the VPN server when the connection is active.
Therefore, we can use this information to confirm that the VPN connection is active. First, with the VPN connection off, use one of the methods above to obtain your public IP address that your ISP has assigned you. Next, activate your VPN connection, which in some cases will display what your IP address gets displayed as, which is really the VPN server IP address. Now, go back to your preferred method of displaying your IP Address, and we can see what it is. If the IP Address is the same as before the VPN was connected to, then the VPN is not working. More likely, if the VPN is from a reputable provider, you will have a different public IP address coming up on your query, which confirms that the VPN is indeed providing the privacy as expected.
To do the due diligence for checking a VPN connection, the next step is to check out if there is a DNS leak. Recall that the DNS, or more properly the Domain Name System is the ‘Phone book of the internet, converting entries inputted into the browser address bar into an numeric IP address.
In general, your ISP provides your DNS, unless you have changed it out to an alternate, such as Google. However, while using a VPN, there would be little anonymity if the DNS requests got handled by your ISP. Therefore, in the situation of an ISP, the DNS gets done by the VPN as well. When this is not going according to plan, this is a security issue that is known as a DNS leak, where the VPN is no longer providing the DNS component of its security that it should. This also opens the VPN user to a DNS hijacking attack, a type of cyber attack that can misdirect inquiries to malicious sites.
Thankfully, a DNS leak is fairly simple to check for as there are dedicated websites to help check for this. The easy to remember, and aptly named www.dnsleaktest.com is one such site. By running the test, either the standard test that checks a single query, or the extended test that checks multiple queries, you can then confirm that the DNS is not from your ISP, or your alternate DNS if you have changed the default out for another.
If you are not sure, running the test with the VPN turned off, and then on can then show the DNS being used, and it can be confirmed that different ones are being used with the VPN active. If the same DNS comes up with both conditions, then you have a DNS leak, which should be addressed with a more reputable VPN, as it should not be the case.
Using a VPN connection does not need to take a leap of blind faith. With the knowledge above, and running a few simple tests, users can easily confirm that their VPN is active, and robust as the marketing indicates that it is.
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Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.