Are VPNs Safe? Legal? Secure?
Unfortunately, many VPNs are not safe. Learn what you need to know to choose a safe VPN, whether VPNs are legal and how to make them even safer.
A good VPN can provide you with a whole new level of safety and security online, whether you’re just trying to stay safe on the public Wi-Fi at your favorite café or navigating controversial torrent indexers or streaming sites.
In fact, we consider a VPN a must-have for anyone who’s even remotely concerned about their online safety, security and privacy.
But there’s a problem. You see, we hate to break it to you... but when it comes to the question of whether VPNs are safe, the answer is that many VPNs are not safe.
That’s right. Not a few, not some, but many.
Why? Well, let’s take a look. And while we are at it, we’ll discuss whether VPNs are legal, and we'll even show you how to make VPNs more secure.
'Are VPNs Safe?' contents (select to expand)
Part I: Are VPNs Safe?
VPNs sound great in theory. And some are.
But too many are unsafe. Here are the reasons why many VPNs are unsafe.
VPNs with Vague or Non-Existent Privacy Policies
VPNs that Are Subject to Surveillance
The governments in the Five Eyes – and to a lesser extent, Fourteen Eyes – countries are notoriously intrusive. They’re home to agencies that conduct surveillance on citizens and non-citizens alike or cooperate with those that do.
Now, this doesn’t mean that a VPN based in these countries is automatically compromised, but it is an issue that needs to be considered.
VPNs that Log or Monitor Your Traffic
Of course, surveillance is less of an issue if your VPN provider doesn’t keep logs, which is why it’s one of the first things we look for when reviewing a VPN.
When a non-logging provider is asked to turn over your usage logs, their answer is easy: "Sorry, we don’t have any".
Unfortunately, it’s been shown time and again that many, if not most, VPNs are keeping logs, whether they’re connection or usage logs.
And some (especially free VPNs) even directly monitor your traffic and then sell that info to advertisers.
VPNs that Lie About Their Server Locations
It seems like every VPN is claiming to have servers in hundreds of countries these days. Now, some providers really do have the resources and the know-how to pull together an impressive list of servers, but in many cases, it’s simply false advertising.
Many VPNs are claiming to have servers in countries that they don’t, while using various tools to make it seem like the traffic is actually routed through said countries.
VPNs that Leak Your Data
Even if a VPN provider is completely honest and transparent about their service, things can still go wrong.
There have been several common types of leaks that have popped up in the VPN world over the years, including DNS, IPv4 and IPv6, and WebRTC leaks.
There’s also the ever-present possibility of leaks caused by a dropped connection.
Unfortunately, most VPNs simply don’t have the proper leak protections and kill switches built into their software to protect against all of these, meaning your data can be exposed when you least expect it.
Even if you’re protected 99% of the time, that 1% can leave you vulnerable.
- Learn more: how to tell if your VPN is leaking your data
VPNs that Pay for Reviews
One of the first things a smart consumer does before buying a product is, that’s right, search for reviews.
Unfortunately, the world of VPN reviews is flooded with sites that simply promote any and all VPNs that are willing to pay them, regardless of the VPN’s safety or quality.
Rather than honestly reviewing each VPN service and highlighting their pros and cons, the paid fake reviews simply talk them all up and try to convince you to buy.
And if that VPN turns out to be a poor or untrustworthy product? You’re the one who pays the price, literally and figuratively.
At Cogipas, we do use affiliate links for VPNs we review and we have a prominent & transparent disclosure policy about that.
But that doesn’t stop us from critiquing their negative aspects or dropping a service from our recommended list if questions arise about their trustworthiness.
How to Avoid Unsafe VPNs?
So, how do you navigate the minefield of shady or less-than-competent VPN providers to find one that is secure and that you can actually count on to protect you?
Here are some things to look for:
- Find a VPN that’s not based in the Five or Fourteen Eyes countries.
- Look for a provider that has proven no-logs claims, whether through an audit or in public court records.
- Check the VPN’s features for leak protection and a built-in kill switch.
We go deeper into these aspects in section III of this post 'How to Make a VPN More Secure'.
Part II: Are VPNs Legal?
That question is a bit like asking, “is using the Internet legal?” The answer is: it depends what you use it for.
VPN Use is Not Always Legal
If you use your VPN to protect your identity so that you can intentionally download clearly pirated content, illegal materials or to conduct illicit transactions, then your VPN use will be illegal.
Unfortunately, instead of engaging in thoughtful discussions, most commentators simply declare “yes, VPNs are legal” and use their articles as nothing more than an opportunity to flog the most expensive VPN services. Of course, this is no coincidence as it also means high, juicy commissions for those websites.
Here at Cogipas we don't see things as quite so black and white because that's not how the world works.
Like Many Things in Life, It Depends
To us, the question "is a VPN legal and safe to use" is more one of risk management.
Plus, whether your actions are legal and safe or not might depend on things such as:
- WHERE you live,
- WHAT you download and
- even HOW you download.
Where You Live
For example, if you live in a relatively lax jurisdiction when it comes to copyright, your exposure to risk when downloading will be much lower than if you live in the USA or UK. For example, Britain has even started handing out prison sentences for illegal downloading!
In some places, downloading copyright materials may be prohibited "on the books" but consequences may not be pursued with any vigor by the authorities. In such places, only prolific downloaders who flaunt their activities may need to worry.
What you Download Using the VPN
If you are going out of your way to download pirated materials, then your risk is much higher.
On the other hand, maybe you want to use a VPN simply to protect against online tracking and profiling or monitoring, and to have a degree of protection in case you accidentally download something dodgy.
How you Download
How you download the content may also be a factor.
But we highly recommend you do. They'll provide added safety for just $3.71/month.
However, don't sign up willy-nilly to just any VPN. Sign up for a reliable VPN with a proven track record of not keeping logs of its users' activities.
For example, the VPN Private Internet Access ("PIA") has demonstrated its commitment to user privacy right down to the ultimate test of publicly disclosed court documents proving its non-logging policy.
If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, PIA VPN has proven itself beyond doubt.
How You Pay Can be Important Too
Even how you pay for your VPN service might factor into your risk model.
If you subscribe to a VPN service with your credit card or banking details, the VPN provider will have those on file and they could potentially be disclosed (or hacked) if your VPN provider keeps logs of your activities.
So, serious downloaders in very risky situations should also consider paying for their VPN service with anonymous payment methods such as Bitcoin or better yet cash-bought store gift cards as these cannot be traced back to you.
We fully recognize that this is an unnecessary step for most people but, going back to our risk management approach, if you are in a high-risk situation this is something you should consider.
So, Are VPNs Legal or What?!
So before swallowing whole any black and white analysis of whether using a VPN is legal and safe, stop and think. Things are more complicated than a binary yes or no.
We think everyone should be using a VPN given the risks and dangers, current and future, regarding online tracking, monitoring and profiling. A VPN helps obfuscate your online activities and protect your privacy.
And for downloaders, a VPN is a must. If nothing else, a VPN will protect you in case you inadvertently or accidentally download something you shouldn't have.
This all points to using a trusted, non-logging premium VPN provider, but doing so without throwing money out the window. A reliable VPN has your back and is great value for as little as $3.71/month. Why pay the whopping $13/month some VPNs charge?
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Part III: How to Make VPN More Secure?
There are a number of ways to make a VPN even more secure.
We’ve already discussed the many ways you can use a VPN. However, enjoying ultimate online privacy and anonymity is not always as simple as signing up and installing a VPN service.
In the rest of this article we explain a number of ways to make your VPN more secure and thereby maximize your online anonymity.
Choose a VPN Wisely
When choosing a VPN, a critical factor is to make sure it does not keep logs of your activities.
Most VPNs on the market today will prevent your ISP and third parties from monitoring your traffic in real time, but if your VPN maintains logs of your activities, your ISP or third parties could get their hands on these logs by, for example, filing complaints to the VPN provider.
In contrast, the best VPN providers keep no logs of your activities. This way, they have no information to disclose to would-be snoops that could link your online activities back to you personally.
Get a VPN with a Kill Switch to Protect Against Possible VPN Drops
Even the most reliable VPNs never achieve 100.0% up time and will fail at some point. If this happens, your IP address will be exposed and potentially your cover will be blown.
You should choose a VPN with a so-called “Internet kill switch” feature. Enabling it will make sure that you are disconnected from the Internet if your VPN ever fails, even if only for a brief moment.
- More: see our detailed discussion about VPN kill switches
There are separate software tools available that try to accomplish the same thing: they monitor your VPN connection and will shut down the programs you specify if your VPN connection ever drops.
Despite the availability of these tools, we recommend you opt for a VPN with a kill switch feature built-in rather than rely on third party software.
Prevent DNS Leaks
DNS stands for Domain Name System. DNS is used to translate IP addresses such as 192.0.2.24 into more memorable domain names such as www.cogipas.com that people can actually remember, and vice versa (translating domain names into the IP addresses that computers use).
Whenever you type a website’s domain name into your browser, it looks up that domain name’s IP address in a DNS server to connect to it.
When navigating the Internet under the cover of your VPN, your computer or device should resolve domain names through your VPN’s DNS servers, so that even your DNS lookups are private and protected within the VPN’s tunnel. However, some VPNs cut corners and do not do this.
In addition, sometimes your operating system may malfunction or be tricked into bypassing your VPN provider’s DNS servers and routes the request directly to your ISP’s DNS servers. This leaks your true IP address and potentially exposes you to snoops.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, carefully choose your VPN provider and ensure it doesn’t suffer from DNS leaks. To check, you can use these tools.
If you already have a VPN and it fails these DNS leak tests, switch from it as soon as you can!
Use Two VPNs at the Same Time
You can use two VPNs at the same time for doubled up protection. It’s actually much easier than it sounds.
You connect to one VPN and then to a second VPN without disconnecting the first.
The first VPN will mask your IP address and encrypt your data, and then route your traffic to the second VPN which performs the same operations. This will slow you down, but literally doubles your protection.
- NordVPN has a cool, built-in double VPN feature which lets you accomplish this same technique at a single click
If you use VPNs that are based in different countries, or better yet in different continents, this really provides the maximum protection possible, but will impact connection speed.
Use Split Tunneling
Some VPN providers offer a Split Tunneling option. This novel feature allows you to choose what traffic to route through your VPN and what traffic to leave untouched and routed through your ISP.
- More: see our in-depth article on 'VPN Split Tunneling'
At first glance, splitting your connection in this way may seem like a bad idea. But the fact is it can improve your online anonymity.
If you log in to password protected accounts while using your VPN, you are essentially “admitting” that you were that (masked) IP address at that time. For example, If you use your VPN while torrent file-sharing, mass downloading files from the web, using Usenet newsgroups or streaming geo-blocked videos or other censored content, while at the same time accessing your social media or email accounts, traffic analysis techniques can make the link between these two separate activities that were “signed” by the same IP address.
A concrete example will help illustrate this. If IP address 192.0.2.24 was sharing a torrent and at the same time was also logged into the Gmail account of Bill Gates, it doesn’t take the NSA to conclude that it was Bill Gates that was sharing the torrent.
By splitting your connection, you can route through your ISP the online activities that can directly identify you personally (such as password protected accounts) while using your VPN to route the traffic you want to keep private and hidden. This gives you a separate IP address for each set of activities at the same time. In this way your VPN-enhanced anonymity will not be compromised through traffic analysis.
- PureVPN offers the easiest VPN split tunneling we’ve seen
Route Your Download-Related Activities through your VPN too
This measure follows similar logic to the Split Tunneling technique above.
For example, if you use a VPN to conceal your IP address while downloading a video via torrent file-sharing, you should also make sure to use your VPN when downloading subtitles for the same video.
If you download the subtitles file unprotected without a VPN enabled, traffic analysis could link your downloading of the subtitles while unprotected to the video file you downloaded while protected by the VPN.
Related protected and unprotected activities are more easily correlated for rare content but can also be effective for popular content in large enough quantities. If the data set is large enough, traffic analysis can be used to detect patterns in downloads even for very popular content.
Therefore, don’t think you are necessarily safe “in the crowd”. Use your VPN, not only for your sensitive online activities, but for everything related to them too.
Pay with Bitcoin or other “Anonymous” Payment Methods
As already mentioned in Part II above, you can also make your VPN more secure by choosing one that lets you sign up by paying “anonymously”.
This means paying for a VPN service without having to provide any personally identifiable information such as a credit card or PayPal account that is easily traced back to you.
If you pay for a VPN with PayPal or a credit card, the provider will have these details on file and they could be potentially obtained by snoops. However, leading VPN providers accept payment by Bitcoin and gift cards.
Top Tip – to use gift cards for “anonymous” payments, you have to buy them in person with cash ideally from a place that does not have CCTV cameras.
These payment methods don’t require you to reveal any personally-identifiable information about yourself. By paying “anonymously” in this way you ensure that the VPN has zero knowledge about you.
When using an anonymous payment method, use Tor (or another VPN) during the sign-up process. This way, your true IP address will never be used when interacting with your VPN provider. Truly, zero knowledge.
- More: read about 'Anonymous Payment Methods'
Now Your VPN is Safe!
Most people do not have to follow all of the steps above.
Provided you choose a reliable, no-log VPN service, you are already pretty safe.
You may want to take some of the other steps to increase the safety of your VPN. A lot depends on what you use your VPN for.
If you want to be safe while downloading torrents, doing some online streaming, browsing stuff on the web you would rather keep private etc., a no-log VPN is all you need.
Our 3 recommendations below are tried-and-true safe VPNs you can use with confidence.
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Last Updated: July 8, 2019