Top five myths and misconceptions about using a VPN

Illustration of a VPN running on a mobile phone
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Pick any topic, do a quick online search, and you'll find a ton of chatter about it. Figuring out what's true and what's not can be a challenge, however, especially if you're not an expert on the subject – and this is particularly true when it comes to VPNs.

In between the marketing spin, half-truths, and outright lies, the internet is rife with misinformation about these privacy-boosting tools. So, to clear things up, I've put together a list of the most common myths you'll encounter when doing your own research. Keep reading, and I'll clear up the confusion about today's best VPNs.

1. There's no way to know if a VPN is stealing your data 

A common complaint I hear about VPNs is that they're all a big scam. It's a huge blanket statement that claims that VPNs are actually a cover for data collection organizations - whether they be government agencies, marketing companies, or hackers – and that every VPN company engages in data theft. Plus, the conspiracy suggests that the subscription-based VPN business model simply isn't viable.

It's easy to understand where this concern comes from. You can't exactly go down to your local VPN provider's headquarters and ask to look inside their servers to see what they're doing with your data. There's a kernel of truth to the claims, too, because most free VPNs (and a few paid services) openly state they sell user data to advertising organizations to monetize your internet browsing traffic.

This is obviously reprehensible if you're being sold a VPN on the basis that it enhances your privacy.

Even if a VPN isn't screaming from the rooftops about the fact that it isn't capturing your data, you should consider how it's monetizing the service. Running a VPN service is expensive, after all, especially if customers aren't paying for subscriptions.

So, if you come across a VPN that claims to be 100% free without any drawbacks, it's probably too good to be true. The company is likely misleading you about the extent of the data it sells to marketing partners. Remember the old adage: "If you're not paying for it, you're the product"? It's especially true here.

The good news is that there are reputable VPNs out there that put their money where their mouth is. They'll invest in third-party audits (conducted by firms like KPMG, Deloitte, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) that let you see for yourself how well their no-log policies hold up when scrutinized. Some no-log VPNs have taken things even further by defending their claims in court, with Private Internet Access being the most notable example.

To sum up, if a VPN provider hasn't had its no-logs policy audited by a reputable third party, you probably can't trust it.

2. The Government is spying on us all Anyway, so using a VPN is pointless

Okay, so while the government is keeping tabs on us, it doesn't render VPNs totally obsolete. In fact, it's just one more reason to use one.

The ins and outs

VPNs can seem complicated at first glance, but our jargon-free guide to how VPNs work breaks everything down into bitesize chunks.

Intelligence agencies have a keen interest in monitoring as much internet traffic as they possibly can. The more data they have access to, the easier it is for them to track down criminals, terrorists, hackers, whistleblowers, and the like. I'm against blanket surveillance, personally, but it's easy to understand the argument from a security standpoint. I don't think the trade-off in terms of personal privacy is worth it – and that's why I use a secure VPN.

Anyway, if the government had complete surveilling powers, it wouldn't be interested in compromising VPNs and other forms of encryption. Even with their powerful (and well-funded) surveillance networks, encryption is a hard nut to crack for governments around the world.

NSA leaks have revealed that intelligence agencies are especially eager to figure out VPNs. Currently, we can intuit from the leaks that the L2TP protocol should be phased out, since it's likely compromised by the authorities, but more modern protocols like OpenVPN, WireGuard, and IKEv2 are about as secure as they can be. The American government, for example, relies on encryption standards like RSA and AES to protect its data.

None of us should take our digital privacy for granted, sure, but it's clear that VPNs throw enough of a spanner in the works that law enforcement has to resort to court orders and warrants to get their mitts on the information they're after.

3. With quantum computers right around the corner, VPNs will be useless

There's a lot of nuance to this myth so let's address the key points. First, the timeline for quantum computing varies widely depending on who you ask. Some believe significant advancements are imminent, while others think practical quantum computers are still decades away.

Even if quantum computing becomes feasible to the point that it can crack current encryption, scientists have already identified its potential threat to current encryption standards and have developed several new quantum-resistant algorithms. This means VPN technology will continue to safeguard your data well into the future.

However, a threat known as "store now, decrypt later", where governments stockpile encrypted data to decrypt in the future with quantum computers. It's concerning, but the sheer quantity of encrypted information passing through the internet every day is immense. Capturing all of it would overwhelm even the largest data centers, including those run by intelligence agencies like GCHQ or the NSA. These agencies have to be choosy about the data they capture, which means that military secrets from foreign countries are probably being prioritized over your private messages.

So, while it's true that some of the information that's currently stored could be decrypted in the future, it's not an immediate threat so long as you're using a quantum-resistant VPN.

4. VPNs make you completely anonymous online

VPNs are a core part of your digital privacy setup – but they're not a silver bullet. Masking your IP address with a VPN, for example, won't help much if you're sharing sensitive information about yourself on social media.

Similarly, advertising and marketing companies can gather details about you if you're logged into platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, simply by using marketing cookies.

This is why I recommend using a VPN alongside other privacy tools. Think script blockers, ad blockers, and cookie blockers. Additionally, it's useful to invest in tools that can eliminate the marketing footprint you’ve already left behind. Surfshark's Incogni service reaches out to data brokers and marketing companies on your behalf to request the deletion of your data.

How does this help you out? Well, even if you're glued to your social media, you can ensure that your details stay out of the grasp of marketers by making regular deletion requests, minimizing your digital exposure. If the marketers refuse to comply, however, Incogni can escalate the issue to an independent tribunal and has lawyers on staff to handle disputes, saving you the hassle of dealing with data marketing companies yourself.

5. There's no point using a VPN when Tor exists 

The Tor Browser's decentralized network is one of its biggest selling points – but it also leads to slower speeds. Tor's robust encryption involves routing traffic through multiple nodes and contributes to the slowdown. Plus, as Tor is a volunteer network, there's a serious disparity between servers.

You might end up working through a university server with all the bandwidth you could ask for or a residential connection that strangles your speed. In contrast, fast VPNs invest in better servers, more bandwidth, and superior networking equipment.

Unlimited access

A VPN makes it easy to check out shows and movies from overseas. Check out our guide to the best streaming VPNs to see which service comes out on top.

Furthermore, Tor publishes all of its exit nodes, making it easy for websites to block Tor users. A good VPN constantly reinvests in its infrastructure – which makes it a lot harder for streaming services and website administrators to block VPN users.

If you're interested in checking out shows and movies on international streaming sites (or just have high bandwidth needs), Tor isn't the best choice. It's a life-saving tools for folks who need absolute privacy but, unfortunately, it's not built for everyday use. So, if you want to cover your digital tracks while maintaining a quality browsing experience, I'd recommend sticking to a VPN.

The bottom line

A lot of the myths listed above are the result of dodgy VPNs giving the entire industry a bad name – and, sadly, there are a lot of these dodgy services out there.

However, sticking to our top-rated picks lets you make a massive change to how much of your information hackers, marketers, and your ISP can collect for their own ends. Plus, you'll have access to previously geo-restricted content, better online anonymity, and and smoother, safer online experience.

Sam Dawson
VPN and cybersecurity expert

Sam Dawson is a cybersecurity expert who has over four years of experience reviewing security-related software products. He focuses his writing on VPNs and security, previously writing for ProPrivacy before freelancing for Future PLC's brands, including TechRadar. Between running a penetration testing company and finishing a PhD focusing on speculative execution attacks at the University of Kent, he still somehow finds the time to keep an eye on how technology is impacting current affairs.