A Rookie’s Guide on What is VPN Encryption

Last updated: January 12, 2023
William Sams

William Sams

Learn how VPN encryption works for securing your identity online in layman terms to understand the technology behind privacy tools!

We all know that VPNs tend to be incredibly useful tools in your fight against government surveillance, cybercriminals, geographical limitations, and content restrictions. How do they offer these many incentives though?

Not a lot of people are aware of the technicalities of a VPN service and the many ciphers, handshake protocols, and key authentications it uses, so I decided why not help novice users understand the inner workings of different VPN services.

What is VPN Encryption Exactly?

As I described earlier in my “What is a VPN” guide, the internet is a busy highway everyone knows about and uses daily, but a VPN is the private tunnel beneath it, only you know about. When you activate a VPN, your internet connection routes you to this tunnel, which is “encrypted”

VPN encryption is the method used for enhancing the security and privacy during data/information processing to prevent it from being accessed by any random stranger. It converts all your internet traffic into an unreadable/coded format.

One that is protected by encryption keys, set by your VPN. As such, it is typically impossible for cybercriminals, government agencies, local ISPs, or anyone to decrypt the connection. However, this also depends on the encryption used.

For instance, nowadays the industry standard is military-grade, AES-256-CBC and AES-256-GCM ciphers. However, a few years ago, most VPNs used the blowfish 128-bit cipher, which is easily hackable and can be decrypted upon the entering of an accurate key.

How VPN Encryption Works?

In simple words, VPN encryption is the process of securing all incoming/outgoing data from within the VPN client-VPN server tunnel, ensuring your identity remains hidden and unexploited by anyone.

When you activate your VPN and connect to a server/location, your connection requests all pass through an encrypted tunnel, before getting sent to the server.

Once it reaches the server, it is decrypted and forwarded to the internet, where the data is encrypted again after the server receives it, and sends it back to your device.

After it reaches your device, the data is decrypted by the VPN client, allowing you to view it, while keeping your identity secure. To learn more, I have described everything that goes into VPN encryption and its many connecting-terms:

Encryption Keys

A VPN encryption key encrypts/decrypts data through randomly-generated string of bits. Each encryption key is generated in a way that guarantees its uniqueness, the length of which is calculated in bits. Generally, the longer the key, the more powerful the encryption.

These keys do vary in size i.e. they can be 1-bit, which allows for only two possible combinations, or the industry-standard nowadays, 256-bit. This allows for a total of 1.1 times 10^77 combinations, meaning it is impossible to decrypt by outsiders.

Encryption Algorithms

Encryption algorithms fall into two categories; symmetric and asymmetric encryption. The former relies on a Public and Private Key that tends to be identical. It is quite fast in comparison to asymmetric, an example of which is the infamous AES encryption cipher.

Asymmetric encryption, on the other hand, also known as Public-Key Cryptography uses different encryption keys for the encrypt/decrypt process. It is riskier to use, as a Private Key that is lost cannot be restored normally, an example of which is the RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) protocol.

VPN Encryption Ciphers

An encryption cipher is an algorithm that perform the encrypt/decrypt process. Unlike encryption keys, they cannot be realistically cracked, but they can have vulnerabilities that make it possible to break the encryption. There are many types of encryption ciphers.

Some of the most famous ones include The Blowfish Cipher (accompanied by a 128-bit key), the Twofish Cipher (128-bit and 64-bit), The AES Cipher and The Camellia Cipher (128-bit, 192-bit, and 256-bit), The 3DES Cipher and the MPPE Cipher, both of which are really old-school!

VPN Encryption Protocols

A VPN protocol is used for securing connection between two devices via a set of instructions. In this case, the two secure devices would the VPN server connected and the VPN client.

Most providers support a myriad of protocols to cater to different needs, which include PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, IPSec, IKEv2, SoftEther, SSTP, OpenVPN (used industry wide), and the new WireGuard.

Handshake Encryption

A handshake refers to the automatic communication occurring between two devices i.e. the VPN client and VPN server to establish encryption keys.

During the handshake, either a TLS or SSL one, the client and server; agree which protocol will be used, generate encryption keys, select the appropriate algorithm, and authenticate each other via digital certificates.

HMAC Authentication

An abbreviation for Hash-Based Message Authentication Code, HMAC refers to the activity of checking the digital authentication and integrity of a message to make sure it has not been modified or intercepted by any third-party or unauthorized user.

Perfect Forward Secrecy

Also called Forward Secrecy, PFS is a feature of various key agreement protocols (a combination of ECDH, DH, or RSA usually) to make sure that your session keys do not get compromised, even if something happens to the Private Key of the server connected to.

Why Do I Need VPN Encryption?

Without VPN encryption setup, any of the benefits offered by these privacy tools disappear. It is because of the secure tunnel offered by VPNs and the encryption that allows VPNs to cloak your identity, shift your location, and bypass bans around the world.

If you remove the encryption from a VPN, it will be no different than a proxy service that instantly gets detected and blocked by different websites/services around the world. It is encryption that keeps you invisible to prying eyes, while granting you access to a free internet!

VPN Encryption: Is It As Secure As We are Told?

Although this depends on the type of provider you sign up with, VPN tunnel encryption itself has continuously improved. Ever wondered, who needs VPN encryption?

Well, it’s usefulness has reached a point that it serves as a valuable tool even for large enterprises and government agencies/entities around the world.

Surely, if the technology was not safe, people would not be investing in it, and neither would the VPN industry grow exponentially over this past decade.

If you are still indecisive about trusting VPNs though, I do have a way to ease your mind. BestVPN.co advises its users to increase their knowledge, so I will be your guide to testing VPN encryptions:

How to Test VPN Encryption

  1. Install the relevant Wireshark software for your device
  2. Run the program and start the VPN client by connecting to a server
  3. Choose “Ethernet” or “Wi-Fi” based on the network interface you want to record
  4. Start recording and under “Protocol” choose “OpenVPN” (or the relevant protocol)
  5. Right-click on the OpenVPN packet and start monitoring the TCP or UDP streams

If the stream is displayed as gibberish, it means the connection is encrypted and secure.  As such, you can feel relaxed.

However, If the stream is decipherable, you may not be safe with the specific VPN in use. Disconnect immediately!

There are some VPN encryption routers too, which you can use for connecting all your devices at home. You can test them the same way too!

Do All Providers Use VPN Data Encryption?

Not exactly, most free VPN services may not be honest in the technologies they deploy for keeping your identity hidden. Some may even indulge in shady practices to earn money for managing the costs of a VPN service.

This includes app development/update costs, server hardware, technical support, and regularly auditing of all processes. VPN encryption free of charge is a fugazi, as even if they do offer it, most free providers will use weak ciphers and protocols.

Best VPN Encryption: Providers that Offer Strong Security!

Based on my 9-components VPN scoring system and 4-step user satisfaction review process of over 180+ providers in the marketplace, I can safely say these 5 VPNs below offer the most strong security and encryption to privacy-focused users:

  1. Surfshark – Priced at $1.99/mo.
  2. iVacy – Priced at $1.99/mo.
  3. ExpressVPN – Priced at $6.67/mo.
  4. PureVPN – Priced at $1.65/mo.
  5. CyberGhost – Priced at $2.75/mo.

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