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6 reasons why VPNs are in danger of dying

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The internet is a virtual minefield of hazards, and it is crucial to protect yourself. VPNs continue to increase in popularity, and many users are turning to the best VPN services as a way to keep their communications secure and to protect their privacy.

VPNs aren’t just for helping defend yourself when using insecure public Wi-Fi, either – they remain an important tool in keeping a home network secure. As we’ve seen with the recent Krack (WPA2 wireless) exploit, those using a VPN – even with a compromised home network – would still have protected their data from potential hackers.

Despite all the numerous advantages and uses for a VPN, there are potential downsides, too. And in this article we’re going to discuss six clear weak spots of VPN services, from the level of anonymity they can guarantee, through to issues revolving around user data, and indeed the spectre of mass decryption. 

1. 100% anonymity – or not…

A VPN creates a private tunnel which the user’s encrypted data travels down, but it is hard to guarantee complete or 100% anonymity. Firstly, while the VPN service may promise that it does not log or share data, it is impossible to know if this is really the case. There is no way of seeing behind-the-scenes, as it were, to view how the VPN really works.

Furthermore, there are multiple ways in which the data can be breached, including IP leaks (which can mostly be protected against with a VPN kill switch), and DNS leaks. For those users who truly want to take their level of online anonymity to the next level, we’ve looked at combining a secure VPN with the Tor browser, although this introduces its own set of issues (including whether the VPN or Tor browser should be started first for maximum privacy and anonymity).

2. Geo-blocking working against the user

We were promised decades ago that the internet would enable the exchange of ideas and content without any barriers. However, these days that’s hardly the case, and one prime example of a barrier is geo-blocking. This is where content is restricted on the basis of the user’s location.

There are plenty of examples of VPNs being used to access geo-blocked content, such as enabling access to the BBC’s iPlayer from outside of the UK, or using the purpose-made VPN Getflix, which is purpose-built for circumventing Netflix’s geo-restrictions.

While a VPN can be useful as a workaround to bypass geo-blocking, it can also be a double-edged sword, in some cases making the internet frustratingly difficult to use. This can occur when using a VPN with an offshore server, and then attempting to access a local map, local traffic data, or even the online circular for a local merchant, none of which will be accessible. Also, with the VPN directing the tunnel to a server outside of your home country, you could lose access to popular country-specific websites such as Amazon.

Furthermore, you can get geo-blocked when you try to watch online video from your cable carrier, or access your local newspaper. Sure, a better VPN will have plenty of servers in your own country to run your tunnel through, but this still becomes one more thing you have to pay attention to, with potential for hassles therein.

3. Logs kept by VPN services

The concern with a VPN is that it may keep user data, specifically your data, and have a log of internet activities to provide to authorities. In the end, if you choose the wrong VPN, the record of your online activity may be hidden from your ISP, but instead it could be maintained by your VPN. So all you’ve done is changed who is monitoring you.

The solution is to seek out a ‘no log’ VPN, which means that the provider promises user data is not logged, and therefore not stored, so there is nothing to hand over to anyone down the road. Some VPN services even market themselves with their ‘no log’ feature, and a good example of this is NordVPN (opens in new tab).

Unfortunately, if you look deeper into the issue, you may find that one ‘no log’ policy differs from another. For example, while NordVPN clearly states it has a no log policy, its exact stance on ‘session logging’ is not clear – in other words, some of this may occur. Session logging does not record the actual data transferred, but just the time of logging on and off, as well as the IP addresses visited. But that data could still be used against someone. And this does happen.

Want a real-world example? Popular VPN HideMyAss responded to a court order back in 2011, and provided session logs for a hacker that was a member of LulzSec, and this resulted in an arrest. Furthermore, this is not an isolated example – there’s a more recent one of PureVPN collaborating with the FBI – so these logging policies and practices can potentially have serious implications.

4. Free VPNs aren’t worth it

Many folks want to save money, obviously enough, and a free VPN can sound really tempting. In fact, TechRadar even has a whole list of recommended picks in the category of free VPNs. However, take a step back for a moment and realize that any business that wants to stick around has to make money at some point. Even free VPNs need to make a profit.

In one case, the VPN service Hola was accused of taking the bandwidth of 47 million users of the free offering, and allegedly selling this through a separate service known as Luminati (also owned by Hola). This plan allowed users’ IP addresses to be used for exit nodes. In short, tread carefully if you’re picking a free VPN.

5. Data mining

While VPNs promise a high level of privacy, this isn’t consistently the case. With so much data going through a VPN, there are plenty of opportunities to use it for nefarious purposes. Also remember that the VPN has the key to decrypt the data that goes through its server.

Only the reputable VPNs will keep all of your info private, and there are multiple access points that can be compromised, including IP addresses, MAC addresses, geo-location data, and DNS requests. Furthermore, it’s nigh-on impossible to know what is really going on with your data behind the scenes – until a scandal story hits the news headlines.

6. Mass decryption

The truly colossal number-crunching power of today’s supercomputers raises concern around the issue of who else has the power to peek inside a user’s VPN tunnel.

This process is termed ‘mass decryption’ and the likes of government cybersecurity agencies certainly have the massive power needed to crack current levels of encryption used by modern VPN protocols.

So, the short answer is yes, the likes of the NSA can literally break into VPN tunnels. Therefore we must bear in mind that while using a VPN certainly boosts your level of privacy, it is far from a guarantee of avoiding government surveillance, at least.

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Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.