VPNs are amazing tools. A simple Google search can tell you a lot about their many perks - traffic encryption, the ability to unblock online content, and the power to protect your privacy by hiding your IP address.
However, there aren't enough articles talking about what a VPN does not do. Not to say there are a lot of serious and risky drawbacks, but full transparency is important when it comes to online security and privacy.
Let's face it: the last thing you want is to spend money on a VPN service, download and install the software, only to quickly realize it doesn't work as you initially thought it did.
So, we put together this quick article to tell you what a VPN does not do in detail:
1. Protect You from Malware
Some people claim that VPNs actually do that. However, considering how VPNs work and what malware is, it's just not possible. Here's why:
- Malware is malicious software that cybercriminals use to infect devices. Ultimately, the malware targets your device's software, hardware, and files (like outdated apps, the CPU, or important documents), not your Internet connection.
- A VPN encrypts your online connection and hides your IP address. Basically, once the VPN client connects to the VPN server, all the traffic that goes between them is encrypted (so, nobody can spy on it).
See the problem?
A VPN is just not programmed to secure your device. It can only protect your online data.
Antivirus software is what you'll need to get the job done. It scans your device for any signs of danger, and it checks all running applications and any code that interacts with your device's processor against known malware patterns. If it detects any issues, it isolates and removes the threat.
If you need a list of reliable antivirus options you can try for free, follow this link.
What About VPNs with Malware Protection?
Some services claim to offer that. CASVPN, for example, says they offer malware protection on their homepage. They even say they keep your device from being infected.
At a glance, that seems like it might be a scam. And some services could actually be scams. CASVPN actually gives off that vibe because it's not transparent about how it offers that protection. It just says it does.
However, the reality is slightly different. According to reviews and what users are saying, VPNs that offer "malware protection" seem to provide a blocklist - basically a built-in firewall in the client that blocks connections to malicious websites. Some more advanced solutions might even block malicious scripts and ads on websites.
Some legit examples include:
Each feature works differently, of course, but that's the main way they protect you from malware - by blocking shady malicious sources.
Now, that all sounds pretty good, but here's the problem: a VPN with that kind of malware protection still won't secure your device against malware infection. It can prevent it online, sure, but if your device actually gets infected, there's nothing it can do.
That can happen if you insert a malware-infected CD, DVD, external HDD, or USB flash drive into your computer. Or if you use a WiFi network that's been infected with malware. Or if your smartphone gets infected because you used Bluetooth.
2. Keep You 100% Anonymous Online
"Online anonymity." "Become anonymous online." "Browse the web anonymously." These are the kinds of claims you see in articles talking about VPNs or the marketing copy on VPN provider websites.
Well, we're sorry to be the bearers of bad news, but those claims are false.
A VPN can protect your privacy, sure, but offer you complete anonymity? That's quite a stretch. When you use such a tool, you don't magically become invisible on the Internet. Here's why:
Your ISP Still Knows Who You Are
And they can actually see you're using a VPN. Also, they know your original IP address (they assigned it to you), and still have all your personal and payment information since you're a client.
Governments Can Intercept VPN Traffic
We're talking about extreme cases, though - like Kazakhstan, where the authorities intercept and decrypt user traffic, or China, where only government-approved VPNs are legal (aka VPNs that share user data with the authorities).
Social Media Doesn't Help
Sure, a VPN will encrypt the traffic you send to and receive from social media sites. And it will also stop them from associating your usage with your real IP address.
However, a VPN won't encrypt your photos and all the information you make public on social media. People will still see it if you don't make your profiles private.
Browser Fingerprinting Is a Problem
Everyone knows websites collect IP addresses. And a VPN is a great way to hide that information. But sites use browser fingerprinting to obtain even more valuable data besides that:
- The type of browser you use and its version;
- Your OS and its version;
- The screen resolution;
- Your device's timezone, language, and active plugins.
All that data sounds generic, but according to the EFF, there's a really tiny chance that another person will have completely matching browser information. In fact, only one in 286,777 other browsers will share the same fingerprint.
And a VPN can't do anything to hide all that information.
VPNs Don't Anonymize Online Payments
A VPN secures your traffic when you make online payments, correct, but it won't keep your purchases a secret.
Let's say you use a VPN when you buy something from Amazon with your credit card. The VPN won't stop Amazon from associating your credit card information with your customer profile. It can only make sure the credit card data that bounces between your device and the VPN server is encrypted.
And you buying anything with a credit card isn't private. That kind of data ends up in the hands of marketers, hedge funds, and media/tech giants.
Mobile Service Providers Can Still Track Geo-Data
Even though a VPN hides your geo-location by masking your real IP address, that won't stop mobile service providers from seeing where you are.
Like your ISP, they still know your original IP address, but here's the thing - they can use advanced surveillance methods (like signal tracking) to get an idea of your whereabouts.
To Sum It Up
The only "anonymity" you really get with a VPN is for the data shared between the VPN client on your device and the VPN server. It's encrypted end-to-end, after all, so nobody can see it. Still, that's only true if you use a VPN that keeps zero logs. It also helps if they accept cryptocurrency payments, block ads, and offer leak protection.
Some other things you could do to increase your privacy while using a VPN include:
- Using VM (Virtual Machine) software to hide information about your device.
- Use privacy extensions like uMatrix, uBlock Origin, NoScript, and/or Disconnect.
- Run the VPN together with incognito mode.
- Consider using the Tor browser (with Tor disabled) to make your fingerprint identical to all Tor users.
- Always use antivirus software.
Here are more tips to help you out if you want to achieve a certain level of "anonymity."
Some would say the only way you can be anonymous online nowadays is not to be online at all. But even that's not 100% guaranteed since someone could upload personally identifiable information about you on the Internet (like setting up a fake social media profile in your name).
3. Stop Cookies from Identifying You
Since cookies are small text files that are stored on your device, there's not much a VPN can do.
Sure, the VPN server acts as a middleman between you and the web - but only because it intercepts your encrypted requests, decrypts them, and forwards them to the right web server, and it then forwards the requested data back to you.
But what a VPN does not do is intercept cookies and store them on its servers instead of your device. It's not programmed to work that way.
In fact, sometimes, cookies can interfere with your VPN because they let websites see your real geo-location even though you have a different IP address.
To protect your privacy, the best thing to do is clear cookies before and after a VPN session (here's a great guide from NordVPN) or use a different browser with incognito mode when you use a VPN.
Or just try using a secure browser. Here are some good options. Brave, for example, will block cookies from third parties by default.
4. Bypass Internet Shutdowns
A VPN can help you bypass government-enforced Internet censorship by letting you unblock censored sites and hide your traffic.
Because of that, many people think a VPN is a good solution when an Internet shutdown occurs. And shutdowns take place pretty often in countries where oppressive governments want to silence the opposition completely.
Here's why that's not true at all - a VPN needs Internet access to work. When you connect to a VPN, you don't bypass your ISP's network. Instead, you go through their network to connect to the VPN server. So, no matter the situation, you always need your ISP first.
To better visualize that, just think of the VPN as a car. In the Internet shutdown scenario, trying to use a VPN would be like trying to drive a car without any wheels.
5. Increase Your Online Speeds
For some reason, a lot of people seem to think that using a VPN will automatically increase their speeds.
Well, that's simply not true.
A VPN can only hide your IP address and encrypt your traffic. When it routes your connection through its server, it doesn't do any behind-the-scenes magic to make it go faster.
In fact, a VPN can actually lower your speeds. If you use a server that's too far away (like on a different continent), a VPN protocol that's very resource-intensive (like OpenVPN), and WiFi instead of wired connections, you'll likely experience some slowdowns.
The good news is that there are things you can do to improve your VPN speeds. The bad news is that if your original ISP speeds are low, a VPN can't do anything to increase them. The only way to get better speeds is to get a better plan or change ISPs.
There are two exceptions, though:
When Your ISP Throttles Your Bandwidth
That's when they intentionally cap your bandwidth to prevent network congestion. It's much cheaper than buying new servers with more bandwidth, and it even "convinces" some people to buy a pricier data plan or subscription.
Well, a VPN encrypts your traffic, making it very difficult for your ISP to spy on it. Also, they'll only see the IP address of the VPN server you're using. They won't see the addresses of the websites you visit.
So, your ISP can't see what web apps and websites you're using, and they can no longer throttle your connections.
When Your ISP Poorly Routes Your Traffic
Maybe your ISP has a pretty bad infrastructure or weird partners, and they send your traffic through that "roadmap." There's a chance your data will bounce through different countries, resulting in lower speeds.
Now, if you use a VPN, there is a chance (a small one, keep in mind) your traffic will take a more efficient path, resulting in better speeds.
6. Bypass Firewalls at Work All the Time
Usually, a VPN can bypass a company's firewall. It offers you a new IP address that has no firewall restrictions linked to it, and it will encrypt your traffic to prevent admins from spying on it.
But (and it's big 'but'), your workplace can interfere with VPN usage if they have a very skilled IT team and take the right measures. Here's how:
- For starters, if they monitor all connections closely, they can tell you're using a VPN client. They'll see you connecting to an IP address with no DNS resolution (so no website name). It's pretty easy to guess it's a VPN server - especially if you also use port 443.
- If your device has remote administration software on it, the IT team can connect to your computer and take over your screen unannounced, catching you in the act of browsing blocked websites.
- If they issue work-owned devices, they might come with measures that prevent employees from installing additional software or plugins (like a VPN client or extension).
In those extreme cases, a VPN can't help you bypass the firewall.
Can You Use a VPN for Online Banking and Torrenting?
Short answer - yes, definitely. A lot of people use VPNs for that specifically.
But here's why you might hear people saying VPNs don't work with online banking and torrenting:
In some cases, VPN traffic might be blacklisted by banks. Bank of America, for example, doesn't allow VPN traffic. And other banks might flag your traffic as "shady" because you connect from an unknown IP address.
That doesn't mean VPNs aren't good for online banking, though. They're pretty necessary since they encrypt your traffic. Most banks don't have a problem with them either. In our experience, we never encountered any issues.
If worst comes to worst and your bank doesn't allow VPN traffic, talk to them about it. If they don't budge, switch to a bank that does. It's a hassle, but it's worth the extra security. Plus, maybe the original bank would be willing to change their stance on the issue if they see they're losing customers because of it.
Some VPNs don't allow P2P traffic on their servers. Maybe they don't want to deal with DMCA notices and threatening letters from lawyers, or maybe torrenting is illegal in the country where they have their HQ.
But many VPNs actually offer dedicated P2P servers, so they're perfect for torrenting. And they don't keep logs to make sure legal threats don't scare them.
If you don't know which VPNs offer that, here's a useful guide.
Considering What a VPN Does Not Do, Should You Still Use One?
Yes, of course.
A lot of the things a VPN does not do are only "drawbacks" due to misinformation or specific scenarios (like blackouts and strict company policies). Take them out of the equation, and you're left with a very decent service.
Just off the top of our heads, a VPN will stop bandwidth throttling, potentially prevent DDoS attacks, encrypt your data (even on unsecured or fake networks), bypass geo-blocks and firewalls, make torrenting safer, and hide your digital footprints (by hiding your IP address).
Use it together with other security solutions (antivirus software, script blockers, password managers), and you've got an excellent way to keep your data and privacy safe on the web.
If you'd like to find out more about the perks of using a VPN or just learn how a VPN works, check out our complete guide on VPNs.
Which VPNs Offer the Best Experience?
There are tons of services on the market - easily hundreds of them. So picking one is obviously tough.
But we'll make things simple for you with some of our top picks:
If you'd like to see more options, or a comparison of the providers we just mentioned, check this easy-to-scan guide about the best VPNs.
The Bottom Line
VPNs are amazing tools, but misinformation makes people have unrealistic expectations. Despite all of its perks, there are some things a VPN can't do. It's simply not designed to work that way.
If you know other wacky made-up things you've heard people say VPNs do, go ahead and let us know in the comments. Also, if you found this article helpful, don't be afraid to share it with your friends or on social media.