Concern about our individual cyber security is growing among Australians in the wake of numerous data breaches, including two significant attacks on Australian companies.
The Optus data breach impacted nearly 10 million customers, many of whom were required to replace vital documents, including their driver’s license. Not long after, Medibank Private revealed that all of its nearly four million customers have had their data hacked—some of which included detail medical information.
These two high-profile debacles have understandably prompted many Australians to contemplate how they can keep their data safe. Many have been wondering whether a VPN can help secure their data in an era of increased susceptibility to cyber hacks. Here’s the lowdown.
What Is A VPN?
VPN stands for ‘virtual private network—a service that protects your internet connection and privacy online. It does this by creating an encrypted digital tunnel between your computer and the internet, protecting your online identity and hiding your IP address (which is a series of numbers that identifies a device or network).
Another way to understand a VPN is to picture it as an outer packet that ensures your data stays secure inside the packet. This keeps the data safe during transfer.
A VPN also allows you to use public Wifi hotspots safely.
How VPNs May Help
A VPN can quite literally block your IP address from everyone. Governments, hackers, or anyone else spying on you as you navigate the web, explains Australian cyber security expert, Stephen Kho.
“For example, connecting to public Wi-Fi networks, such as those found in coffee shops, airports, and other public areas, is incredibly risky,” says Kho, of digital security company, Avast.
“All it takes is one hacker connected on the same network and they can easily spy on all your activity. A VPN acts like an invisibility cloak, hiding everything you do on your phone or computer.
A VPN can protect you from prying eyes such as Google and other websites that track your browsing habits, Kho adds.
“If you’ve ever used the private browsing feature in your web browser so that you could compare prices for flights, hotels or other services without being tracked, you’ll understand how handy they can be,” he says.
Which VPNs Are the Most Secure?
When trying to track down a VPN provider, start by thinking about why you need one in the first place.
For example, if you’re using free Wifi in the airport a lot, then maybe it’s a good idea. Alternatively, if you work from home and don’t want your browsing history to be trackable, particularly if you work in a sensitive industry, such as banking, accounting or media, then it may be worthwhile.
A VPN also means you don’t have to worry about content restrictions if you’re using the internet for online research, for example.
Also consider whether the VPN is free, or is offered via a subscription service. You should also check if you can contact the company with any questions. You can read online reviews of VPN online.
Beware: VPNs Are Not Full-Proof
Like most elements of the big wide web, VPNs aren’t all built the same, and they are still capable of being hacked. SuperVPN was considered a popular VPN provider, but was hacked last year, with the hacker selling databases of user credentials online in a devastating breach that saw some lose faith in VPNs altogether.
Kho says: “VPNs protect your privacy online so you cannot be targeted or discriminated against based on location. It is important to note that you can also still be susceptible to phishing scams and being infected by malware whilst having a VPN, so it is vital that your system is current with all software updates and that you have a reputable antivirus/anti-malware software installed.”
Bear in mind that a common side effect of using a VPN is potentially slower browsing speed, Kho adds. “Your web traffic goes through more steps than usual when connected via a VPN, so there could be some slowdown.”
Does a VPN protect you from hackers?
In theory yes, but they aren’t foolproof. Make sure you shop around, and be a little wary of free VPNs as they may not be as secure.
The best thing to do to protect yourself is to remain vigilant and avoid clicking on suspicious links or attachments from unknown users.