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Is a VPN Worth It? What To Know Before You Use One

A VPN alone can't protect you from phishing or malware; still, for the average user they can be useful. With other security tools, they’re more effective.

A VPN alone can't protect you from phishing or malware; still, for the average user they can be useful. With other security tools, they’re more effective.

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      How Does a VPN Work?

      A virtual private network (VPN) creates a conduit for your online traffic and information to travel safety between devices and networks.

      Instead of moving through your internet service provider's (ISP) server, your data and activity route through the VPN's remote server. In the process, the VPN effectively hides your IP address by replacing it with the remote server's IP.

      To protect your data, VPNs send it through an encrypted tunnel — making it undecipherable — except to your device and the VPN server. A VPN’s security and performance depend on several factors, including the encryption algorithm and protocols used. The encryption type and key length decide how your data is scrambled. A VPN protocol sets the rules for data encryption, decryption, and authentication.

      For example, Aura uses Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 128-bit encryption — a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)-recommended algorithm for use on unclassified federal systems [*]. As for protocols, VPNs may choose from several options, including OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec, or WireGuard®.

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      What Can VPNs Hide?

      It was in the 2010s that commercial VPNs took off — spurred by browsing history leaks, ISP throttling, and a boom in streaming services like Netflix

      Average internet users who didn’t trust their ISP cloistered to VPNs for online privacy [*]. While VPN usage continues to grow [*], Americans are more discerning about VPN services.

      VPNs are not complete cybersecurity tools and must be used with antivirus software, password managers, and multi-factor authentication (MFA). Here's a brief summary of what VPNs can and cannot hide.

      What a VPN hides:

      • IP address. VPNs mask your IP address by assigning your traffic to the address of a remote server. 
      • Geo-location. Since IP addresses heft geo-location data, a VPN can spoof your location (called geo-spoofing).
      • Some search history. VPNs encrypt your internet traffic — including your search history — hiding it from hackers and your ISP.
      • Downloads. A VPN can secrete the specifics of your online activity, including your downloads. It can also shield your web traffic from ISPs and other third parties to help bypass streaming, torrenting, or gaming restrictions.
      • Personal data. With an active VPN connection, your personal information is encrypted and hidden from prying eyes.
      • VPN activity. Since various ISPs and online services try to block VPN usage, some VPN providers hide VPN activity — a process called obfuscation [*].

      What a VPN doesn’t hide:

      • Your absolute online identity. Though VPNs offer privacy, they don't offer complete anonymity. Not only can ISPs and snooping eyes usually tell if you're using a VPN — your identity may also be needled through your online footprint, VPN user logs, or data leaks.
      • GPS location: A VPN has no impact on your device's GPS data, which can reveal your location.
      • Some search history. VPNs do not hide your search history from search engines or the VPN provider.  
      • Illegal downloads. While VPNs encrypt your traffic, they do not guarantee immunity for illegal activities. Depending on the logs policy and data retention laws, your VPN may comply with law enforcement requests for information.
      • Cookies. VPNs do not prevent cookies and other trackers from monitoring your online activity and behavior.
      • Signed-in account activity. VPNs cannot hide your activities from social media platforms when you log in to your accounts.

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      How Much Does a VPN Cost?

      In general, VPNs cost between $3 and $13 per month. The true cost depends on other available features, functionality, and subscription length. Here are the prices for some of the top VPNs in the market*:

      • Aura: Starts at $3/month. Aura’s privacy-first plans include a VPN and antivirus software for up to three devices.
      • Hotspot Shield: Paid plans start at $10.99/month. It features unlimited data, over 800 servers, and more than 125 server locations.
      • NordVPN: Starts at $12.99/month. It features ad blockers and malware protection.
      • ExpressVPN: Starts at $12.95/month. It features servers in over 105 countries, ad and tracker blockers, and a password manager.
      • Surfshark: Starts at $10.99/month. It features over 3,200 servers worldwide, a VPN bypasser, and an ad blocker.

      While free VPN services are available, they lack the privacy and security that premium VPNs offer. In fact, they may be more dangerous than using no VPN at all.

      SuperVPN, for example, compromised over 360 million user records after a data breach last year [*]. Its free VPN app for Android and iOS was listed as being developed by two different entities.

      *Prices are as of March 2024.

      Are They Safe To Use?

      Nearly half of all internet users turn to VPNs for general online safety — for reasons such as preventing identity theft [*]. So, yes, VPNs are safe to use as long as you choose the right provider.

      Websites can track you in other ways

      • Even with a VPN enabled, marketers, website operators, and data brokers can still track you by using cookies in your web browser [*]. Tracking pixels can also see how you interact with a web page [*].
      • This metadata can be used to triangulate your identity. Plus, your GPS data and device fingerprint can tell others where you are and the type of web browser, operating system, and programs you use [*].

      How a VPN is set up matters, too

      • While VPNs help keep your data confidential, they aren't infallible. They rely on the VPN server capabilities and restrictions to access data.
      • Hackers can exploit flaws in a VPN’s encryption algorithm, crack keys that aren't completely random, or gain access to leaked keys [*].

      HTTPS makes most website secure already

      • More than 85% of all websites use Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) [*]. HTTPS encrypts any traffic that a website and browser exchanges.
      • Even if hackers were to overrun your VPN, most websites have built-in fallbacks in place to protect your information.

      When ISPs and data brokers amass your personal information without your consent, VPNs can be helpful. The problem is that less-than-reliable VPN providers collect that same information themselves [*].

      You’re then left to choose between whom you trust more — your  ISP or VPN provider.

      It should be noted, however, that not all VPNs record browsing activity or store device identifiers. Aura does not record your VPN browsing activities in any way that can be traced back to you.

      Can VPNs Stop Viruses, Malware?

      Even the best VPNs can't stop viruses and malware on their own. While they can help defend your information from man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks on public Wi-Fi networks and fake hotspots, VPNs do not block, quarantine, or remove malicious files or software from your device.

      If you click on a malicious link or download a corrupted file from a phishing email, your VPN alone won't protect you.

      In reality, there's no one way to completely stop viruses and malware. You can, however, decrease the likelihood of them affecting you by using a well-rounded approach to digital security. For best results, pair a good VPN with the following:

      • Strong and unique passwords, MFA, and a password manager
      • Antivirus, ad blocker, and anti-tracking software
      • Enable HTTPS-only websites on your browser
      • Automate software updates on devices and software
      • Practice safe browsing habits
      • Activate firewall protections on your devices and router

      Can’t You Use the Tor Browser Instead?

      For most users, the Tor browser shouldn't be considered as an alternative to a VPN.

      When you use the Tor browser, your encrypted traffic ricochets to randomly selected servers (or nodes) before landing at its destination. 

      While this gives you anonymity, the multiple layers of encryption and relays can result in slower search speeds. The Tor browser may also give you access to the Dark Web. This part of the internet is blocked by search engines and can be a lurking ground for cybercriminals [*].

      Some people use the Tor browser in addition to a VPN to increase their privacy, but this isn't recommended either. Using both will block your ISP from knowing you used Tor and block Tor from seeing your IP address. This will result in much slower speeds; and your privacy still hinges on your VPN's logging policies.

      Can You Access Geo-Restricted Content?

      By taking on the IP address of a remote server, VPN users can trick their networks and online services into thinking they're visiting from a different country.

      This is especially useful in heavily surveilled environments, like Russia and China, or to unblock geo-restricted streaming content.

      Not all VPNs can get around these geo-blocks. China, Russia, and Netflix have all cracked down on the technology by blocking IP addresses known to be associated with VPNs. Despite these efforts, many VPN providers have kept up by introducing new and unblocked IP addresses.      

      Will a VPN Slow Down Your Connection?

      In most cases, VPNs slow down your internet connection speed because of the data encryption process, the protocols used, your distance from the VPN server, and the number of users on the server.

      Security.org speed-tested VPNs 120 times and found that internet speeds decreased every time [*].

      The only exception to this rule is if your ISP throttles your bandwidth, say, when you stream. With a VPN on your home network, you can hide what you're doing and sidestep the throttling.

      Won’t VPNs Trigger CAPTCHAs?

      CAPTCHAs trigger when a website or search engine detects bot-like behavior. Since VPNs use the same IP address for many users, their collective activity appears to come from one location.

      As a result, VPNs may trigger "unusual traffic" alerts and CAPTCHAs from Google [*]. Google even blocks all activity from some VPNs.

      While it’s frustrating for VPN users, there are some workarounds:

      • Switch your VPN server. It's possible that another server has not yet been flagged as suspicious. 
      • Use static or dedicated IP addresses. If your VPN offers a static IP address, it may evade CAPTCHAs better than a more commonly used dynamic address. Still, this contests the very purpose of using a VPN.
      • Clear your cache and history. Emptying your cache and browser history can reset any tracking and session data that could be influencing the CAPTCHA.
      • Try a different search engine or browser. If your problem is specific to Google, consider switching to another search engine like DuckDuckGo.
      ⛑️ Protect your online accounts, identity, and privacy — with a single app. Aura combines identity and fraud protection with advanced digital security, 24/7 support, and up to $1 million in insurance coverage. Plans start at $3/month.

      Is a VPN Worth It? Do You Need One?

      VPNs scramble your data and hide your IP address, but they can't protect you against phishing attacks, malware, fraud, or Dark Web leaks.

      Individuals and organizations that require more control, security, and/or anonymity might use a VPN alternative. Zero-trust network access (ZTNA) is an example.

      For the average user, however, VPNs can be quite effective, especially in consort with other digital security tools:

      • Use a separate browser profile when you're connected to a VPN. Your non-VPN account information and history won’t be associated with your VPN activity. 
      • Activate all VPN security features, including a kill switch and DNS leak protections.
      • Sign up for a complete digital safety app like Aura. Get antivirus and anti-track software, Safe Browsing tools, and a secure password manager on top of a powerful VPN. Trial Aura free for 14 days, and also get a 60-day money-back guarantee on annual plans.2
      Aura’s privacy-first plans start as low as $3 per month. Sign up today

      Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you to increase awareness about digital safety. Aura’s services may not provide the exact features we write about, nor may cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat discussed in our articles. Please review our Terms during enrollment or setup for more information. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime.

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