In our article on Wi-Fi security we explored some potential vulnerabilities with Wi-Fi networks, both public and private, and some possible solutions to make Wi-Fi more secure. But what about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in particular? How do they work and can they make wireless connections more secure?
VPNs are an excellent tool to make browsing on a device safer and more secure on any wireless network. They create a secure, encrypted connection that shields the browser from any hacking or snooping and ensures the privacy of any data sent. VPNs are extremely difficult to hack and are an essential tool for anyone wanting to make their browsing more secure and private.
Let’s look in more detail at how VPNs work and some different VPNs that we recommend.
The Vulnerabilities of Public Wi-Fi
Whilst Wi-Fi in private homes does tend to be reasonably secure, it does have some vulnerabilities which we explored in our full article on Wi-Fi security. Some precautions can be taken regarding setting strong usernames and passwords and some router settings can be changed to make the wireless network more secure and less likely to be hacked.
In truth reports of private wireless networks being hacked are quite rare. The hacker has to be in close enough proximity to pick up the signal and if you follow the precautions we suggested it will be much harder for them to hack the router anyway.
A team of Belgian experts did manage to crack the modern WPA 2 Wi-Fi security protocol in 2017, exposing a flaw in security keys. Thankfully they were researchers into the topic and did not have malicious intent. Patches were quickly issued in an attempt to fix the problem.
Nevertheless the bigger problem with Wi-Fi security is on public Wi-Fi networks, which do not have the same level of security as those in homes.
Public Wi-Fi networks tend to be set up for convenience over security, often not being encrypted or password protected which means that any data sent over it can be intercepted in a Man in the Middle attack.
See our article for an excellent summary of the problems with public Wi-Fi. The main thing is obviously not to enter any sensitive information over a public wireless network unless there is some kind of encryption, either the green https padlock symbol or preferably a VPN, which we will detail below.
For general browsing like sports results, weather forecasts, news etc then security doesn’t really matter but if you are entering any kind of personal or private information like usernames, passwords and bank details you would not want others to see, the wireless network needs to be secure. Using unprotected Wi-Fi in any public place such as the following is not recommended:
- Hotels – a crucial security risk – see our post on this.
- Airports – see our post on airport Wi-Fi
- Train and bus stations and on certain trains
- University and college campuses
- Public libraries
- Shopping centres
- Any other public building with Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi in particular is often not very secure and is open to hackers intercepting data through “Man in the middle” attacks
What is a VPN and How Does it Work?
A Virtual Private Network or VPN is a piece of software which creates a secure encrypted internet connection for your device. It effectively creates a virtual tunnel just for your browsing so that no one else can see or access it. Once set up a VPN is very hard to crack so it is a powerful tool for internet security and privacy.
For this reason we argue that it is an essential tool for anyone entering personal or sensitive data over a public Wi-Fi network, such as a cafe, airport or other public building.
VPNs can also replace a person’s actual IP address with a different one, making it appear they are browsing from another region or even another country, which can help users to circumvent Government and ISP restrictions on certain sites.
VPNs can make connections more secure and private
VPNs Can Help on Home Wi-Fi Networks as Well
VPNs also carry similar benefits when used on home Wi-Fi networks, although the security on these networks tends to better than public Wi-Fi anyway. Home Wi-Fi networks do not have as many people connecting, and these people are not strangers, as opposed to huge public networks like at hotels and airports with hundreds of strangers connecting.
That said, private home Wi-Fi networks can still be hacked, just not so easily. Think of apartment blocks and inner cities where lots of users are crowded together in a small space, and can all reach each other’s Wi-Fi network.
It just takes one person who knows what they’re doing with hacking and has malicious intent to hack a close by network and steal personal data.
So VPNs are definitely still useful on home networks as well. They do not so much stop a private network from being hacked as encrypt and protect a browser’s individual traffic on that network. Using a VPN, no one is able to see what data you are sending and receiving. At best, all a hacker could see is that you are running an encrypted connection, but not what exactly you are sending over that connection.
Anyone on that network not using a VPN would not receive the same level of protection, though some VPNs can installed on the routers themselves to allow more widespread protection.
This is much the same way as the green https “secure” SSL padlock works; only a good VPN will tend to use much stronger encyption than the SSL padlock, making the connection much harder to hack.
VPNs can also be helpful at conserving privacy within shared home Wi-Fi networks, especially with all the data sharing that apps and streaming devices now do, sometimes without the user’s knowledge or consent. Some users aren’t comfortable sharing this information with other people on the network.
In other words, these days sometimes the videos that one user watched on their streaming device can show up as recommended videos on another person’s streaming device on the same network, since the programs/apps on these devices sometimes sync up or share data without us even knowing or consenting to this.
Using a VPN can stop this, fully encrypting the connection to and from your own device. No other user, or device, on that network knows what you are doing on a VPN connection.
More generally VPNs do tend to be more privacy tools used by individual devices on a network to make all browsing on that device private and secure. For instructions on how to make a wireless network as a whole more secure, see our article on the subject.
The good news though is that paid VPN packages tend to allow installation on multiple devices, often 5 or 6, to ensure widespread protection anyway. Let’s look at some good paid options now.
Some Good VPNs – Nord VPN, Tunnelbear, Vypr VPN & CactusVPN
So what are some good VPNs you can use to secure your wireless network traffic and increase your online privacy? We will look at some good paid VPN options – Nord VPN, Tunnelbear, CactusVPN and VyprVPN.
Whilst there are free VPN services available, they are in our experience almost universally slow, sometimes unreliable and have data and usage limitations that make them cumbersome to use.
For a few dollars a month we consider it better to use a paid VPN service. Some of the providers below like Tunnelbear also offer you a free initial trial to test out the product. Free VPN services, especially browser add ons, often have such limited bandwidth that even basic browsing is painfully slow and anything more bandwidth intensive like video streaming is next to impossible.
The paid VPN services offer a much more reliable and fast service where you can stream videos and download with confidence.
See the great video below which covers three of the VPNs – Vypr, Nord VPN and Tunnelbear
Nord VPN is the first one on our list, and is an VPN service with lots of features and very highly respected in the industry. It comes with an easy to install and use interface that can be used on up to 6 devices simultaneously, including games consoles and Smart TVs.
Their service offer you access to well over 4000 servers in 62 different countries worldwide as of Summer 2019, blowing the other VPNs out the water for choice of servers.
The Nord VPN service also encrypts its traffic twice for extra security and peace of mind, and also has a “Kill Switch” that stops all traffic being send if your device is disconnected from the router for whatever reason.
Also Nord VPN, like the other options, does not keep logs of any user’s browsing so privacy is ensured using their service. Their service is registered in Panama which has no data retention laws. Choice of servers and double encryption are the main strengths of the Nord VPN.
The Tunnelbear VPN service has perhaps the cleanest easiest interface to install and use. Like the others it can be installed on multiple devices and operating systems and their simple easy to use interface is great for non techies and no nonsense people that just want to browse securely without being overwhelmed by too many options and tech jargon getting in the way.
A major plus for Tunnelbear is that they actually have an entry level free service (Baby Package) that offers you 500 Megabytes of data free every month.
This would be fine for general browsing and a little bit of video streaming but for anything more intensive like regular streaming and downloading you would need one of their paid packages. With the data usage of modern internet, you’ll soon run out of 500MB even within a week or so with moderate usage.
Once installed you have servers in 22 different locations round the world you can choose to browse from. Tunnelbear are based in Canada and like the others do not keep logs of your activity. As well as their free package they also offer a 7 day free trial of their paid package which is an excellent way to test out their service.
Overall simplicity is the main strength of the Tunnelbear VPN service.
Vypr VPN is the fastest of the VPN services we recommend. With fast reliable servers and unlimited data usage and no download caps, the Swiss based Vypr VPN is great for people wanting to use a VPN for more bandwidth intensive activities like Youtube streaming or downloading large files.
It should be noted though that a recent review on the service found it did not work streaming Netflix or BBC iPlayer. They have a choice of more than 700 servers over 6 continents.
For streaming services you can get to work with Vypr though the good news in their service defeats the bandwidth throttling that is applied by some ISPs. In other words, over a normal internet connection, ISPs will sometimes restrict your bandwidth if they can see you are doing certain things.
With a VPN such as Vypr they can only see an encrypted internet connection (they cannot see exactly what data is sent) so they cannot throttle or restrict your bandwidth based on what you are doing online.
Vypr VPN Premium accounts also have a “Chameleon” feature which allows the software to defeat attempts to block VPN usage. It has been successful in allowing users to circumvent Government blocking attempts in countries like China, Russia, Iran and Turkey.
This can be an extremely valuable feature given the aggressive efforts by the Chinese government in particular to censor the internet and block VPN usage.
Like the other services Vypr is available on a wide variety of devices and operating systems, including TVs and can be installed on the router itself if desired for more widespread protection. Like Nord VPN it also has a kill switch that keeps your browsing private in case of any disconnects.
Vypr also runs all its VPN traffic through bespoke zero knowledge DNS servers which means that they do not keep any logs of user data.
Click here to see our full review of the Vypr VPN service
Express VPN is another provider who offer a lot of choice in terms of servers and countries. Although not quite as plentiful as Nord VPN, Express VPN still offer a choice of well over 1000 servers from 100 countries to choose from. You’ll always be able to find one close to you.
The Express VPN service is another one commended for it’s speed, like the Vypr service. However, it is more costly than the other services.
See the table below for a quick summary comparison of the 4 providers. Any one of them will do a plenty good enough job in terms of security and privacy – they are all reputable providers with good levels of technology and service.
Some Paid VPN Services – Click to Compare (affiliate links)
|Provider||Price (12 months paid in advance)||Number of servers/countries||Number of Devices Allowed||Main Benefits|
|NordVPN||$6.99/month||5300+/61||6||Choice of Servers & Double Encryption|
|Tunnelbear||$5.00/month||20/20||5||No Nonsense Simplicity|
*Offers and Flash Deals are very common with VPNs, so if you click the links to check the price, you may often find a better deal than the one listed.
*Tunnelbear do offer a free plan but it only comes with a 500MB monthly data allowance. Will work for very light, occasional browsing, but for any kind of heavy browsing, video streaming or downloading you will probably need a paid plan.
Signing up for a VPN is usually very easy. You simply visit their site (click on one of our affiliate links above for each provider), sign up, pay your subscription, download their product and boot up the program.
Once running you simply select a preferred server location and open the VPN connection. You now have a secure connection that no one else on that Wi-Fi network can see or access.
From the above table you can see a comparison of the 4 providers at a glance, each having their positives and negatives. The prices we quote are for an annual subscription, where you pay for an entire year up front, and these are by far the best deals. There are options to pay for the service on a month-to-month basis but they are more expensive.
To summarize, a VPN is an excellent investment for security, privacy and peace of mind for internet browsers, particularly those who travel and use public Wi-Fi regularly. It can also be useful for better privacy on home Wi-Fi networks. A good VPN will definitely make your Wi-Fi connection more secure.