Here’s what a VPN can’t protect you against

An abstract illustration of a digital lock.

VPNs are powerful tools that can help you stay safe on the web, but they are not some kind of magic armor that will protect you from all online dangers, no matter what VPN providers promise. Let’s take a look at some of the dangers a VPN can’t help you with.

What VPNs Will Protect You From

Before we get to that, though, it’s probably best to review what virtual private networks are and what they’re used for. When you access the internet, you do so by first connecting to a server run by your internet service provider, which then connects to the website you want to visit, in this case How-To Geek.

A VPN redirects your connection: from your ISP’s server, your connection goes to the one operated by the VPN provider, and then to the site you want to visit. From the website’s perspective, it looks like you’re accessing it from a different IP address – that of the VPN server rather than your own – which means you can appear as if you’re somewhere else.

This comes in handy when trying to access another country’s Netflix library or if you want to avoid blocks placed by your government. This is a problem for Russians and Chinese, for example, countries where the Internet is very different.

This is the first big advantage of using a VPN, the ability to spoof your location. However, these services have another trick up their sleeve, which is called a secure or encrypted tunnel. In short, this means that the VPN encrypts the connection between its server and the site you are visiting.

As a result, anyone who wants to see what you’re doing – which in this case could mean either the site or your ISP – will be greeted with an assortment of random gibberish, the telltale sign of an encrypted connection. This is one of the reasons why using VPN is recommended in case of Wi-Fi hacking.

VPN marketing claims

VPNs are the best way to protect yourself from anyone using your IP address to track you. This generally includes any type of surveillance, whether by governments or corporations, as well as the avoidance of censorship. We have an article on all the things you should use a VPN for.

However, since we’re dealing with issues that most people don’t know about, it’s very easy for VPN providers to claim all sorts of benefits from VPN use in an effort to attract more customers. These attempts can range from the relatively innocent to the downright nasty.

A good example of the latter can be found in our article on unreliable VPNs: RusVPN uses the box below on their site to scare people into signing up for the service. However, armed with the knowledge we’ve described earlier, you’ll quickly realize that most of these claims are complete nonsense: a VPN can’t outsmart hackers looking for information like your bank account information or address. It just doesn’t work that way.

RusVPN Infographic

However, this is only one particularly glaring example. Many of the best VPNs are guilty of at least exaggerating what their product can do.

NordVPN, for example, has a habit of over-promising on its “double VPN” feature, while ExpressVPN claims that its headquarters in the British Virgin Islands will protect you from government warrants – however, it won’t. as we explain in our article on what VPNs share with law enforcement.

How vulnerable you are, even with a VPN

As useful as VPNs are, they’re just not a one-stop shop for cybersecurity. Although we don’t want to become alarmists ourselves, the sheer variety and number of threats on the Internet simply cannot be held back by a single type of software. While VPNs will make sure your IP address can’t be tracked – at least the good ones will – anything that tracks you in other ways won’t be put off by a VPN.

This includes obvious scams, like scams. These include old favorites like the Nigerian Prince or emails where you’re told the IRS is after you and you need to quickly pay a fine using gift cards; examples abound. Viruses and other malware are generally not stopped by VPNs, nor are keyloggers. Think of it this way: if the threat doesn’t care where you are, a VPN probably won’t help.

Tracking issues

That said, even when it comes to tracking, VPNs aren’t bulletproof. When a site or organization tries to determine who you are, usually to tailor advertisements to your browsing habits, the IP address is just one of many data points used for this purpose. Far more valuable is your overall browsing history, which can be pieced together even when using a VPN.

The first is to track your usage of your online accounts from sites like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. You might not realize it, but until you expressly opt out of them, they follow you around as you browse and swallow all that sweet, sweet data that makes these companies all their money.

The easiest way to prevent this type of data collection is to simply not register for one of these accounts. Since that’s probably not possible for everyone, the best thing to do is to enable incognito mode whenever you’re browsing, or at least when you don’t want to be tracked. Incognito mode signs you out of all your accounts, preventing their data collection.

However, the technology has become advanced enough that even using a VPN and logging out of social media accounts, you can be reliably tracked using so-called browser fingerprinting. Using this technique, sites can create an accurate profile of who you are simply by analyzing small telltale signs like the device you’re using and your browsing habits.

Ultimately, no matter how good your VPN and other precautions are, you’ll have to accept some sort of tracking. The only real way to avoid it is to not log in at all, no matter what the security companies tell you.

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