Just 55% of People Actually Know What VPNs Do [Survey]

All About Cookies surveyed people to find out how many know what VPNs do, how many use them, how safe they feel using VPNs, and more.
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When we use the internet, we tend to leave a lot of ourselves online. But more than ever, consumers are using tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) to try to stay anonymous while browsing, and to reduce the risk of bad actors accessing their data.

Since VPNs are one of the most common tools for implementing basic cybersecurity measures, our team at All About Cookies wanted to find out how much internet users know about VPNs, how common adoption is, and what they use them for. We surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults on their familiarity with how VPNs work, how often they use them, what the most common uses are, and more.

Key findings

  • Limited VPN knowledge: Just 55% of internet users said they know what VPNs are used for. 15% of internet users had never even heard of a VPN.
  • The most common uses for VPNs are:
    • Increased security while using public Wi-Fi
    • General internet safety
    • Keeping personal data and browsing information away from corporations and advertisers
  • Over one in 10 internet users have used a VPN to access the dark web.
  • VPNs are highly trusted — only 16% doubt their anonymity while using VPNs.
In this article
Key findings
How familiar are you with VPNs?
How many people actively use VPNs?
How confident are VPN users that they are anonymous online?
Expert insights
Methodology

How familiar are you with VPNs?

While the concept of virtual private networks has become more and more common in recent years, do most people actually know what they do?

A chart showing how familiar people say they are with VPNs, namely what they are and what they do.

It turns out the answer is yes, but just barely. Though 85% of internet users say they’ve heard of VPNs before, only 55% said they were familiar with what they actually do. That leaves 15% of people who have never even heard of VPNs in the first place.

Among those who have heard of virtual private networks before, certain features are more well-known than others. Asked which common VPN features they were familiar with, respondents selected IP address masking (84%), ad blocking (77%), and tracker blocking (76%) as the three most common uses.

How many people actively use VPNs?

While the majority of people have heard of VPNs and know what they do, does that mean most people are actively using them?

A chart showing the generational divisions of VPN use, with millennials having the highest percentage of VPN users.

As it turns out the answer is close, but not quite. Among those who have heard of VPNs before, 37% currently use them, while a little less than one third (32%) have used a VPN in the past but no longer do. That means that just 31% have never actually tried using one before, though that number was smaller among millennial (25%) and Gen Z (21%) respondents and significantly higher among baby boomers (47%).

A pie chart showing what kind of VPNs people say they use: free or paid.

Among active VPN users, more than half (57%) indicated that they use a free service as their primary VPN. While VPNs have many advantages, there are also disadvantages to using a VPN. Some disadvantages are exclusive to, or amplified by, using a free VPN. Notably, free VPNs can come with extra security risks, including malware. And some free VPN services actually log and sell user data, rendering one of the key features of using a VPN moot.

How often do people use VPNs?

Considering how many people use VPNs, the question becomes how often are they using them?

A chart showing how often people say they use a VPN.

60% of active users say they use their VPN on a daily basis, while an additional 31% say they use it a few times a week. That means that over 90% of people who utilize VPNs when browsing the internet use them every week.

We also found that more than three-quarters of VPN users (77%) use their VPN at home. For those who use them elsewhere, 41% said they use a VPN at work, 38% use one when browsing on public Wi-Fi, and one-third said they use their VPN while traveling.

What do people use VPNs for?

So what are people using their virtual private networks for?

A chart showing the top uses for a VPN.

One of the top uses for VPNs was safety, both in general and on public Wi-Fi specifically. 63% of respondents say they have used a VPN for each of those reasons.

More than half of people said they have used a VPN to keep their personal data away from corporations and advertisers (58%), or to maintain anonymity on certain websites (51%).

A smaller, but still significant, portion of users have used their VPNs for more taboo purposes. More than a quarter have used a VPN to get around local blackouts or access unauthorized sports streams online, while around one in five have used a VPN to gamble online (19%) or access the dark web (17%).

How confident are VPN users that they are anonymous online?

Regardless of why someone uses a VPN, it’s clear that anonymity and data privacy are key motivators for many VPN users. So just how confident are they in that regard?

A chart showing how confident users feel that they are actually anonymous online while using a VPN.

The majority of VPN users (56%) say they are mostly or completely confident that they are remaining anonymous when using a VPN, with an additional 28% taking a neutral position. That means just 16% of VPN users actively doubt the efficacy of their VPN to maintain their privacy and anonymity online.

Expert insights

Internet safety should be a top priority living in the digital age since compromised personal information can have invasive consequences. Since cybersecurity and general internet safety is a high priority, All About Cookies reached out to academic professionals to gain expert-level insights on which devices to prioritize using a VPN with, and any potential risks associated with VPN providers.


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Dominic Sellitto, CISSP

Clinical Assistant Professor, Management Science and Systems — School of Management

University at Buffalo

Is there ever a case for opting into a free VPN even though paid services are more secure? What are the potential risks?

I think there is a common misconception that free VPNs are always poor quality, and that consumers must have a paid [VPN] in order to derive benefits.

However, the risk of a VPN, much like any software, is directly dependent on the trustworthiness of the company providing the service. Whether paid or free, you should be making sure the company is reputable and trustworthy before using any VPN.

For example, some “free” VPN services are provided by reputable companies, like ProtonVPN, and browser-based VPNs, such as those offered by web browsers like Opera. That said, many free providers you may find on your standard app store do not have solid reputations and have been caught sending and selling data to third parties. Conversely, some paid VPN services have also been caught exhibiting shady practices, like selling information to third parties.

Rather than solely going by the paid versus free equation to determine the safety of a VPN service, it’s important to look into the company providing the service. Do they disclose their privacy policies and practices? Are they sharing data with external parties? How long do they retain records for? Do they provide transparency reports about the requests they’ve received from third parties and governments, and how did they handle those requests? Are the VPN services reviewed by any reputable technology review sources? If you cannot find this information, or it is suboptimal, it is best to steer clear of the provider.

Which devices (e.g., a smartphone, laptop, tablet) should you prioritize equipping with a VPN?

Rather than device-specific VPNs, I’d recommend assessing what activities you are doing on a network that may benefit from a VPN (especially sensitive activities like banking). If you are uncomfortable on a network, your best bet is always to not connect to the network. If that’s not feasible, make sure your devices are up to date before connecting to the network, and consider the use of reputable VPN software when you must use a public network for sensitive activities (like banking).

It’s important for consumers to understand that VPNs are not a panacea for all risks (only for adding a small layer of protection to otherwise unprotected web content), or a replacement for other good security practices (such as updating your devices and scrutinizing whether or not a network is trustworthy in the first place). [VPNs] are simply another tool in your belt to help protect yourself online.

That said, it is important to think about these things and understand your needs and options before you wind up in a situation where you are faced with the decision to access a potentially unsafe network. A little preparation can go a long way!

These answers have been edited for punctuation, clarity, and brevity.


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Yu Cai, Ph.D.

Professor and Associate Chair, Applied Computing

Michigan Technological University

Is there ever a case for opting into a free VPN even though paid services are more secure? What are the potential risks?

I would not recommend using a free VPN. Personally, my experience with free VPN services has been very unsatisfactory. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Here's a breakdown of the potential risks and drawbacks associated with free VPNs:

  1. Security and privacy concerns: Many free VPN providers are relatively small and lack a proven track record. Consequently, they may not offer the same level of security and privacy protection as their paid counterparts. Some free VPNs may log your online activities or IP addresses, and some may even sell your information to third parties. Additionally, certain free VPNs generate revenue by displaying ads and pop-ups to users, which can be both annoying and potentially malicious. In some instances, free VPNs have been discovered to contain malware, or to be used as a vector for cyberattacks.
  2. Slow speeds and limited services: Free VPNs often come with slower connection speeds and a limited number of server locations. Free VPNs may be less reliable than paid services, leading to frequent downtimes or connectivity issues. Many free VPNs impose data caps or bandwidth restrictions, further restricting your online activities. These limitations can significantly affect your online experience, especially when it comes to activities like streaming.

In summary, it's advisable to avoid free VPN services due to the numerous security, privacy, and performance concerns associated with them. It's generally better to invest in a reputable paid VPN service with a proven track record, as some paid VPN providers may also offer poor services. When selecting a VPN provider, be sure to conduct thorough research, read reviews, and carefully consider your specific needs and budget.

Which devices (e.g., a smartphone, laptop, tablet) should you prioritize equipping with a VPN?

The decision of which devices to equip with a VPN depends on your specific needs and how you use these devices. As a general rule, it is advisable to give preference to the devices that manage sensitive or confidential data, including your work emails, financial details, and personal information.

How safe are internet browsers that come pre-equipped with VPN features?

Browsers that come with built-in VPN features can offer a degree of privacy and security when you surf the internet. Nevertheless, the safety and efficiency of these integrated VPNs rely on multiple factors, and it's crucial to take into account their constraints and potential risks.

Most incorporated VPNs are simple and basic proxies when compared to standalone VPN services. Their features and protective capabilities are usually quite limited. Since I don't endorse free VPNs, it's advisable to exercise caution when considering these free built-in VPNs. While these browsers can be used for regular web browsing, it's important to exercise care when handling personal and financial information.

These answers have been edited for punctuation and brevity.

More tips for getting the most out of your VPN

Safe and secure access while browsing the web should be something everyone has access to. While looking to get set up with a VPN, consider the following:

  • Learn the basics. Become familiar with what a VPN is. This will help you decide if a VPN would be useful for your daily browsing.
  • Get yourself properly set up. Knowing how to set up a VPN on your devices helps ensure everything runs properly and you get all the benefits of secure browsing.
  • Use a trusted provider. Read our NordVPN review to get more insight on one of the most trusted VPN providers.

Methodology

All About Cookies surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18 or older using a survey platform in October 2023. Results were stratified across age and gender to create a nationally representative sample.

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Author Details
Josh Koebert is an experienced content marketer that loves exploring how tech overlaps with topics such as sports, food, pop culture, and more. His work has been featured on sites such as CNN, ESPN, Business Insider, and Lifehacker.