May 8, 2023
In today's world of growing cybersecurity threats, VPN encryption ciphers play a crucial role in safeguarding your online data. That’s what scrambles your data into unintelligible code, preventing any third party from interpreting it. Furthermore, it’s also practically impossible for third parties to decrypt your VPN-encrypted data.
Encryption has countless benefits for Internet users. For example, if you regularly shop online, you would want to protect your credit card information and other online data from cybercriminals and hackers. Or, you simply don’t like the idea of your Internet provider knowing what you do online. In such scenarios, VPN encryption can come in handy.
But how does VPN encryption work, and which encryption cipher is the best? In this article, we will answer all these questions for you. You will also learn about the types of encryption and the steps to test it using Wireshark. Let’s get started!
VPN encryption is a process that changes the plaintext data into an encrypted code. After that, the data can only be decrypted by the intended party. The goal of encryption is to increase your Internet privacy and prevent third parties from spying on your Web traffic.
Using a capable VPN is a foolproof way of encrypting your Internet traffic and hiding your browsing activities. All this information gets hidden after it passes through the VPN’s server (here’s more info on how a VPN works, by the way).
Generally, good VPNs use the AES-256 cipher for data encryption because it’s one of the best encryption technologies. Hence, it should be the minimum requirement. However, alternative options like the ChaCha20 and Blowfish ciphers are also used, as explained later in the article.
VPN encryption works by creating a secure channel that ensures your data remains safe even if it gets intercepted. It generally consists of the following 4 steps:
Generally, based on the encryption key, there are two types of encryption methods. These include asymmetric key encryption and symmetric key encryption.
Encryption ciphers are algorithms that scramble and unscramble data to protect your security. One of the most important aspects of encryption is the key length, where longer keys are considered to have stronger encryption. For example, AES-256 is more secure than AES-128 due to its longer key length.
There are multiple VPN encryption ciphers out there. In the following sections, we will explore four popular ciphers - AES, Blowfish, ChaCha20, and Camellia - and their respective features.
AES is often regarded as the gold standard for encryption protocols. It was developed by Belgian cryptographers Joan Daemen and Vincent Rijmen, and adopted by the US government in 2001 as a replacement for the earlier Data Encryption Standard (DES).
AES is available in key lengths of 128-bit and 256-bit. When you hear about "military-grade encryption," it typically refers to AES-256-bit encryption, which is nearly impossible to break.
Blowfish was designed by Bruce Schneier in 1993 as a fast, free alternative to existing encryption algorithms. It uses key lengths ranging from 32 to 448 bits. However, Blowfish has a weakness: it’s vulnerable to a "birthday attack." This type of attack exploits the fact that the probability of finding two identical elements in a set increases with the size of the set.
Due to this vulnerability, Blowfish is often only used as a second resort, with AES-256 being the preferred encryption cipher.
ChaCha20, designed by Daniel J. Bernstein in 2008, is a relatively new encryption cipher. It’s the only cipher compatible with the WireGuard protocol, making it popular in the VPN industry. ChaCha20 uses a 256-bit key length and is considered to be about three times faster than AES.
While ChaCha20 is generally considered secure, it hasn't been as extensively tested as other ciphers like AES, so it could potentially reveal vulnerabilities in the future.
Camellia is an encryption cipher similar to AES in terms of speed and security. Developed by Japanese researchers, it’s available in key lengths of 128, 192, and 256 bits. Despite its smaller key length, brute force attacks are still considered infeasible against Camellia.
However, Camellia is not NIST-certificated. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) certification is significant for encryption ciphers as it attests to their security and reliability. Due to the lack of NIST certification and extensive testing, Camellia is rarely available in VPN apps.
You can test whether your VPN is encrypted using Wireshark (Windows/macOS), which is a free, open-source tool for network analysis and troubleshooting.
Wireshark allows inspection of individual data packets, which means that you can easily verify whether your Web traffic is encrypted or not. Let’s take a look at the steps involved, and keep in mind that we’re using ExpressVPN, our #1-rated VPN.
Along with that, you may notice in the screenshots above that the protocol has also changed from TCP to UDP. This happened because our VPN client is set to use OpenVPN UDP.
VPN protocols are a set of rules and processes that a device follows to establish a connection with a VPN server. These protocols are responsible for forming the VPN tunnel, which secures the data that flows between your device and the VPN server.
On the other hand, encryption ciphers are the algorithms used to encrypt the data that flows through the VPN tunnel, ensuring that your information remains safe and unreadable even if intercepted.
Now, let's briefly explore some of the most popular VPN protocols:
For more information, consider reading our complete guide on VPN protocols.
Yes, VPN encryption ciphers are practically unbreakable. That is because the length of the keys used to encrypt and decrypt data are quite lengthy, which is what makes VPN encryption so secure.
For example, 256-bit keys are considered the gold-standard encryption for securing credit card transactions and other sensitive information on the Internet.
Since each bit can only have two states (1 or 0), the number of possible combinations for a 256-bit key is 2 to the power of 256. That is a properly, massively, stupendously huge number.
Even if you took the most powerful computers in the entire world, like the ones governments have, and you let it guess millions of possible key combinations every second of every day, it would still take billions of years for that computer to try every possible combination of bits that make up the key.
So while it’s not technically impossible to use brute force to 'crack' strong encryption, it’s so impractical that you can consider it unbreakable.
Based on this, here's the answer to the question of whether VPNs can be hacked - no, they are safe as long as their encryption is strong.
VPN encryption ciphers are essentially algorithms that scramble and descramble your data to protect it from prying eyes. Protocols, on the other hand, are responsible for forming the VPN tunnel based on a particular set of rules.
When we talk about encryption, AES-256 is considered to be the gold standard because it’s practically unbreakable. That is why all capable and security-focused VPNs use this encryption.
If you are looking for military-grade encryption, we recommend ExpressVPN because it uses AES-256-bit encryption. This VPN also has other security and privacy features, such as obfuscated servers and an anti-tracking system, ensuring total privacy on the Web.
Yes, VPN encryption is safe. However, its safety depends on the type of encryption you use. For example, AES-256 is practically unbreakable.
Yes, all VPNs should be encrypted. Otherwise, they won’t achieve their primary goal of securing your Internet data. However, some free VPNs can have weak or insufficient encryption.
IPsec is a commonly used encryption protocol. However, sometimes SSL/TLS is used instead.
No, they are not the same. Encryption ciphers are algorithms that secure your data by scrambling it. On the other hand, VPN protocols are responsible for forming the VPN tunnel.
Yes, it’s legal to encrypt your traffic, as long as you are in a country that does not restrict the use of VPNs.
Yes, if the encryption is weak, then hackers might be able to break through. But if you are using something like the AES-256, even the most powerful computers will take millions or billions of years to break it.
AES-256-bit is the best currently known encryption cipher for VPNs and is considered the gold standard.
ExpressVPN uses military-grade AES-256-bit encryption, which practically cannot be cracked even by the fastest computers.
We hope that this article has answered all your questions about VPN encryption. If you have a question or additional information to share, feel free to add it in the comments section below. Thank you for reading!