Everything to Know About VPN Encryption

VPNs protect your information through varying encryption methods and security protocols. Find out what you need to be protected.
Andrew Adams, Author
Catherine McNally, Editor
Last updated Sep 9, 2022

A virtual private network, or VPN, allows internet users to mask or hide specific information to keep their browsing more secure. VPNs can also modify your IP address to allow you to access websites that may be blocked by an entity, such as the government or a business. Although VPNs provide more security, you may be curious about the extent it keeps your personal data safe.

So, is a VPN encrypted? The short answer is yes, a VPN encrypts data. If you are using a VPN or looking for a solution, understanding the types of encryption and what each VPN uses will help you decide on the best one for your needs. Now, let’s look at how VPNs work and the various security protocols offered.

In this article
Does a VPN encrypt data?
What does a VPN hide?
Do VPNs really work?
How do VPNs encrypt data?
Types of VPN protocols
Does a VPN protect you from hackers?
Can a VPN be traced?
What’s the most secure VPN?
What to look for in a secure VPN
VPN encryption FAQs
Bottom line

Does a VPN encrypt data?

VPNs keep you secure by protecting your data and encrypting it. The encryption of your data keeps it safe from hackers and others who may try to access the information.

Encryption takes information, such as your browsing data, and hides it in a series of code to mask the true meaning of the information. Encrypting your data through a VPN can help protect your personal information when using public Wi-Fi. Beyond encryption, VPN services also offer other security features, which help protect your internet activity.

What does a VPN hide?

VPNs are useful tools for many different reasons. You might need a VPN to hide your IP address, your location, or your browser history:

  • Your IP address: A VPN changes your IP address and gives you a new one while the VPN is active. Your IP address shows your online activity so hiding it through a VPN stops anyone’s ability to track you online.
  • Your location: Information about your location is also shared when you’re browsing online. If you’re traveling internationally and want to access U.S.-based sites, a VPN can hide your location so you have access.
  • Your browser history: When connected to a VPN, your browsing history is encrypted and inaccessible by your internet service provider (ISP), hackers, and other entities. This can protect your personal information when using a public internet connection. Features such as incognito mode do not fully hide your IP address and browser history.

By hiding these aforementioned things, the VPN is able to protect the personal information that may be susceptible to hackers online.

Did you know your ISP is legally required to keep a record of your search history for 90 days? The Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act of 1996 requires ISP’s to save the data.

Do VPNs really work?

VPNs help protect your security when browsing online. Your VPN's effectiveness depends on the security protocol and the type of encryption used. As the technology evolved, so have the different protocols for VPN security.

How do VPNs encrypt data?

There are several different types of encryption VPNs use to protect your data. The difference in encryption is mainly based on the encryption key used. There are many encryption methods, including Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), public-key, symmetric, and transport layer security.

AES encryption

AES encryption is one of the strongest protocols available. AES has three different lengths of encryption keys that give increased security, including AES-128, AES-192, and AES-256. Even with the most robust encryption key, AES uses less memory than other encryption methods and is easier to implement.

Public-key encryption

Public-key encryption uses a combination of two keys — a public key and a private key. In order to decrypt any data, you must have public and private keys. This type of encryption is used often — especially for secure sockets layer (SSL) security to encrypt website data. SSL security encrypts internet data on websites with an SSL certificate to protect user information. A website with SSL security will display an HTTPS, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, pre-fix instead of HTTP. Public-key encryption is also known as asymmetric encryption.

Symmetric encryption

Symmetric encryption uses the same key to encrypt and decrypt information. Information is encrypted by scrambling the data. Once the recipient inputs the password or key, the information is unscrambled and decrypted. AES encryption is a type of symmetric encryption. Because both computers must know the same key, there is concern that the key could be intercepted, which makes it a less secure encryption type.

Transport layer security (TLS)

TLS is a type of encryption protocol that protects data on the internet. TLS is used primarily to protect communication between websites and servers, but it also is effective in protecting other communication, such as email and messaging. TLS includes three parts: encryption, authentication, and integrity. TLS encrypts the data, ensures that the correct recipient is getting the data, and then makes sure that the data hasn’t been tampered with. VPNs use TLS to help protect user data.

VPN encryption method Security strength
AES Strongest
Public-key Strong
Transport layer security (TLS) Strong
Symmetric Weakest

Types of VPN protocols

One of the things that make different VPNs unique is the protocol used. These protocols have varying levels of security, they may use more or less bandwidth to encrypt your data, and they may be outdated or too new to offer full protection. Understanding VPN protocols and understanding which one is best for your situation is important to your overall online security.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is a widely used protocol for VPNs. It boasts a highly secure and open-source solution. OpenVPN is customizable to the user's needs and can use different encryption protocols to provide the necessary security level. With all the versatility, setting up OpenVPN for your needs can be more challenging.

WireGuard

WireGuard is a reasonably new VPN protocol, and its effectiveness is still being explored. WireGuard is an open-source solution and boasts faster speeds than other VPN protocols. Although this protocol looks promising, it is still very new and lacks features such as full anonymity for users.

L2TP/IPsec

Layer 2 tunneling protocol, just like the name, is a tunneling protocol for VPNs. Tunneling is a method of transporting data using protocols that are unsupported by the network. Tunneling moves packets of information by putting that information inside of another packet that is supported. Unfortunately, it does not include encryption or authentication. It solely connects you to your VPN server. L2TP relies on IPSec protocols to provide encryption. IPSec consists of different protocols to help encrypt data. L2TP is available on many systems and offers flexibility with the amount of security you need. However, it can be slow, it has been potentially compromised by the National Security Agency, and it struggles with firewalls.

IKEv2

The Internet Key Exchange version 2, known as IKEv2, is a reliable VPN protocol. The protocol offers one of the most secure encryptions. It uses minimal bandwidth, and it's consistent if you move between internet connections. The only downside of the IKEv2 is its limited compatibility.

SSTP

SSTP is owned by Microsoft, which means it's supported by Windows OS. It also uses AES-256 encryption to give it leading security. However, because Microsoft owns it, it has limited options to research its security. There are also concerns about Microsoft cooperating with the NSA.

PPTP

The Point to Point Tunneling Protocol was one of the first VPN protocols available. Unfortunately, it uses weak encryption protocols and has many security concerns, including the protocol being decrypted by the NSA, and it is commonly blocked by firewalls. It is fast and highly compatible, but its security concerns outweigh the benefits. Overall, PPTP is not a secure solution for a VPN.

VPN protocol Security strength
OpenVPN Very strong
IKEv2 Very secure
WireGuard Security concerns
L2TP/IPsec Weak without supplementation
SSTP Security concerns
PPTP Not secure

Does a VPN protect you from hackers?

A major benefit of a VPN is that it protects your data from hackers, especially on public networks. For instance, if you’re using unprotected Wi-Fi in a coffee shop and you check your bank account balance, a hacker may be able to infiltrate the network and gain access to your login information. Instead, you could access this information through a VPN, which scrambles the data and hides it from hackers. As long as you use a reputable VPN, this data is encrypted and protected from hackers.

Can a VPN be hacked? The likelihood of a VPN being hacked depends on the security and encryption protocol used. By using a VPN with a trusted encryption protocol and high level of security, your VPN should not be able to be hacked.

Can a VPN be traced?

Your VPN being traced is based on your type of VPN and the security standards offered. If you are using a high-quality VPN, it cannot be traced. Even your ISP cannot trace your VPN usage. They can only see that encrypted data is traveling through its servers.

If your VPN is disconnected, your ISP will be able to trace your activity. In this situation, you’re browsing the web, your VPN disconnects, and your ISP is given immediate access to your activity.

When using a VPN, your ISP and other entities can only see the VPN connection but not anything afterward.

What’s the most secure VPN?

So, what VPN is best? When looking for a VPN, you want to find one with a trusted encryption method and secure VPN protocol. Here are some options:

VPN Lowest price Encryption method VPN protocol
NordVPN $3.99/mo. (for 24 mos.) AES-256 IKEv2/IPsec, OpenVPN, NordLynx
SurfShark $2.49/mo. (for 24 mos.) AES-256-GCM IKEv2/IPsec or OpenVPN
IPVanish $3.99/mo. (for 12 mos.) AES-256 WireGuard, OpenVPN
PureVPN $1.99/mo AES-256 WireGuard, OpenVPN, IKEv2
Atlas VPN $1.89/mo (for 24 mos.) AES-256 WireGuard, IKEv2

What to look for in a secure VPN

To find the VPN that’s best for you — and the most secure — you want to make sure it has the necessary features. Here are some things to look for when picking a VPN:

  • Encryption method: Ensure your VPN has sufficient encryption for your online activity. Many VPNs use AES-256 encryption, which is military grade and secure.
  • VPN protocol: Look at your VPN’s protocol and check to see whether it meets all your needs. For the most part, paid VPNs use protocols that are sufficient. Some free VPNs may use protocols that are outdated or unsecured.
  • Extra features: Different VPN providers have various extra features to help you, including threat protection, dark web monitoring, a kill switch in case your VPN gets disconnected, and more.

The type of VPN and the overall security of it is dependent on you and how you plan on using the VPN. Evaluate the level of security you need to help find the VPN that is best for you.

To gain the most security, you should understand the different features available from your VPN provider and be thorough as you set up a VPN. It is also important to note that VPNs use data, and if you’re using a cellular network or have limited bandwidth, it could affect your usage.

VPN encryption FAQs


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Is a VPN always encrypted?

Yes, VPNs are always encrypted. The level of encryption and overall security of your VPN can vary based on the protocol being used.


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Does a VPN encrypt data sent to your router?

Yes, a VPN encrypts all data that moves through its system. So as long as you’re connected to the VPN, the data sent to your router will be encrypted.


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Can VPN traffic be decrypted?

No, VPN traffic cannot be easily decrypted. Many VPNs use military-grade encryption to keep your data secure. There would be some concerns about symmetrical encryption if someone was able to get the encryption key and access the data. Your data cannot be decrypted if you’re using a VPN with significant encryption.

Bottom line

VPNs are great tools that help keep your internet activities secure. They can help you avoid internet censorship, keep your data secure on public networks, and protect your internet browsing history. There are many reasons to use a VPN, and in some cases, it may be required by your employer when accessing company information outside the company firewall.

To find the right VPN for you, understand how you’ll be using it and what security features are necessary for you. For instance, if you’re looking to watch Netflix while traveling abroad, you may not need a VPN with the highest level of security, but you will want a VPN that is relatively fast, so you don’t have to wait for every episode to buffer.

If you’re transmitting confidential information and want to ensure that it's protected from point A to point B, you will want a VPN with the highest security standards to give you peace of mind as you send information.

Regardless of the use of a VPN, there are many quality options to help keep your data secure.

Author Details
Andrew Adams
Andrew Strom Adams helps businesses with a variety of marketing and communication efforts including content strategy and writing, branding, marketing, and more. He holds an MBA from Westminster College in Salt Lake City and a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Oklahoma Baptist University.