Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are a useful tool. But it’s all too easy to use them for the wrong task, configure them incorrectly, or make other common mistakes.
7 Common Mistakes People Make When Using VPN
So here’s how to avoid them and make the most of these services.
1. Assuming that a VPN guarantees complete anonymity
A VPN can help keep your activities private, when used correctly (and very carefully), and can be part of your toolset for staying in the shadows. But a VPN isn’t a privacy cloak you can throw over your shoulders and instantly become anonymous. In this respect, a VPN is similar to a disposable cell phone.
If you buy a disposable phone anonymously with cash and never use it to identify yourself or link your number to anything in your current life, it’s a pretty anonymous tool.
But if you buy it with your credit card, immediately start calling people you know, and subscribe to services tied to your real-life identity, then any semblance of anonymity is gone.
Likewise, if your goal is to remain anonymous for any purpose, then you need to treat VPN as part of your privacy plan. You should do everything in your power to avoid associating yourself with activity on the VPN, including anonymous network sign-up.
2. Not knowing what these networks can and cannot do
A VPN is simply a virtual private network: it connects your computer, smartphone, or even the entire router to a different network than the network you are already on.
This setup can be as simple as connecting your work laptop to your home office’s internal LAN across town, or as complex as routing your entire internet connection through a VPN to make it look like you’re in a country on the other side of the world.
But fundamentally, a VPN is just that: an encrypted tunnel from your current location to another location that makes it appear as if all of your device’s traffic is not coming from your current location.
That tunnel can help prevent a coffee shop Wi-Fi hotspot from eavesdropping on your connection, allow you to watch a streaming service like Netflix bypassing geo-restrictions, protect you while torrenting, or give you access to LAN-based resources in your home office.
But it won’t magically make you anonymous, it won’t protect you from “malware” or “ransomware”, nor will it change your connection and your habits while using it.
3. Paying for a VPN for remote home access
When setting up a VPN, there are two crucial components, a VPN server (which hosts the VPN service and accepts connections) and a VPN client (which connects to the server).
Paying for a service doesn’t help you set up a client-server model with your home network, it helps you set up a client-server model with a remote service.
If your goal is to securely connect to your home network, you don’t need to pay for a commercial VPN service. Instead, you need to set up a VPN server on your home network so that you can call home when you’re away. You don’t need a third-party service to access files on your home network securely.
It’s important to note that you can use your home connection as a VPN, but it has some notable limitations.
4. Not testing your VPN connection
The fundamental function of a VPN is to create a secure tunnel to a remote network. If the tunnel is not secure or if there is data leakage, the VPN’s usefulness is greatly reduced. At best, you’re not getting what you pay for. But in the worst case, it can be in danger.
With that in mind, you should always take the time to test your connection to ensure it’s secure and not sharing data.
5. Use a cheap or free VPN
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a VPN service, but you should seriously consider a quality commercial provider rather than a very cheap or free one.
Free VPNs are slow and/or have limited bandwidth. On the darker side of things, they’re really free because they’re looking at your data or trying to monetize the experience in the absence of direct payment. If you’re trying to maintain your privacy, it’s worth investing in a reputable VPN.
6. Route your entire internet connection through a VPN
It’s not always a mistake to route your entire internet connection through a VPN, but doing it by default for the vast majority of people is.
If you have an explicit and urgent reason to do so, for example, if you are working remotely in a foreign country and you are routing all your calls back to your home country or if you are tunneling securely to another country to avoid persecution, you should definitely do so.
But for the average person, buying a VPN-capable router and wrapping your entire Internet connection in an encrypted tunnel doesn’t make much sense.
In practice, all this does is slow down your Internet connection, because all VPN tunnels have an overhead introduced by the encryption process. Ultimately, this is not a worthwhile tradeoff.
7. Not using a Kill Switch
People choose to use VPNs for a variety of reasons, but whatever their motivation, they certainly don’t want it to suddenly shut down and expose their internet traffic – be it personal data or active torrents.
That’s why you should use a kill switch. Without a kill switch, when your VPN disconnects, your connection simply switches to your existing internet connection. One minute you are connected to a remote server abroad and the next minute you are connected to your network in Portugal again.
From a privacy point of view, this is a disaster. A kill switch disconnects the connection if the VPN tunnel goes down. You won’t have access to the Internet until you fix it, but you won’t have data leaks that reveal your identity either.