VPN Encryption Guide: What Type of Encryption Does VPN Use?

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A VPN is an excellent anonymity tool that protects your online privacy and security. It hides your IP address and encrypts your data traffic to keep you secure over the web. 

When you connect to a VPN, it creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and the remote VPN server you’re connected to. In this way, a secure connection is established between your device and the open internet. 

Encryption plays a significant role in maintaining your digital privacy. It helps users in the following ways:

  • Hides the content of your data traffic.
  • Allows browsing the web without any restrictions.
  • Avoids spammers and advertisers from running your browsing experience and risking your online privacy.
  • It prevents ISPs, government surveillance agencies, and other snooping eyes from tracking and monitoring your online behavior.

 If you use a VPN without encryption, it exposes all your activities and creates a catastrophic situation. Thus, make sure that your VPN is appropriately encrypting your data. But have you ever wondered how the process enfolds? To understand VPN encryption, you need to go beyond the idea of encrypted tunnels and data packets. There’s a lot more to it than that meets the eye! Let’s dig a little deeper and learn more about VPN encryption.

How Does VPN Encryption Work?

A VPN relies on encryption for safeguarding users’ digital privacy. Encryption works on three stages which are:

  1. Plain and readable text
  2. Encrypted or ciphertext
  3. Decrypted text (plain and readable form)

What usually happens is when you connect to a VPN, it creates a connection and encapsulates your data into deeply encrypted packets.

The encrypted data packets travel through the encrypted tunnel, where various encryption protocols help transport the data traffic to the remote VPN server. The server decrypts it and forwards your request to the requested website. 

In this way, encryption maintains your online privacy and allows you to surf the web with complete anonymity. 

Ensure that the VPN you choose provides robust encryption because if the VPN lacks in this area, it puts your security at significant risk. 

The VPN uses a range of encryption protocols, ciphers, and algorithms to encrypt the data traffic. Let’s dig out more about these things in a bit more detail. 

What Are the Types of VPN Encryption?

There are two main types of VPN encryption, namely symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption. Although both have the same purpose of safeguarding the data from spying eyes, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a brief insight into the basic type of VPN encryption:

Symmetric Encryption

It is a type of VPN encryption that uses a single cryptographic key to encrypt and decrypt the data. In other words, it uses two identical private keys for encrypting and decrypting the data. Though it is a conventional method used for data encryption compared to asymmetric, it is pretty efficient. Anyone who uses symmetric encryption has to share the key for decrypting the data. This encryption method encrypts large databases such as transactions made through credit/debit cards, hashing, or OTP verifications. A good example of symmetric encryption is the AES cipher. 

The major drawback of using symmetric encryption is that if someone gets their hand over the private keys, they can decrypt everything previously that was encrypted. Thus, it is essential to ensure the security of the keys both at rest and in transit. 

As a whole, symmetric encryption is a simple and easy process for encrypting and decrypting large amounts of data. A good example of symmetric encryption is the AES cipher.

Asymmetric Encryption

Also known as public-key encryption or public-key cryptography is a type of VPN encryption in which public and private keys pair up for data encryption and decryption. Unlike symmetric encryption, the key used to encrypt the data is different from the key used to decrypt the data. In other words, a public key is used to encrypt the data while the private key is used to decrypt it at the receivers’ end. Encrypted emails and digital signatures widely use this type of VPN encryption.

The only disadvantage of asymmetric encryption is that it is much slower than the symmetric one. It is because of its longer key lengths, and the mathematical calculations are also complex.

Unlike symmetric encryption, asymmetric encryption is more secure because it doesn’t need to exchange the same encrypt-decrypt key among two or more parties. The public keys are shared, but an asymmetric environment has unique public and private keys that pose no risks for unauthorized decryption by hackers or other threat actors. A good example of asymmetric encryption is RSA and TLS/SSL. 

Four Best VPN Encryption Protocols

A VPN protocol is defined as a VPN’s instructions when a secure connection is established between two devices. The idea behind VPN protocols is to safely connect your device with the remote VPN server, which then uses a cipher to encrypt your data that travels across its destination. The VPN protocol uses an encryption algorithm to keep your data protected over the web. 

Although there are six main encryption protocols, a VPN typically uses four when creating a secure connection. This includes:

  • OpenVPN
  • IKEv2
  • L2TP/IPSec
  • WireGuard

Below is a brief description of all these encryption protocols, along with their pros and cons. 

1. OpenVPN

  • Top-notch level of security
  • Open-source 
  • No known vulnerabilities
  • It depends on third parties for functioning
  • Sometimes needs additional software

The OpenVPN protocol is one of the most common and widely used encryption protocols. It is open-source software that offers a complete balance between security and speed. It uses AES-256 bit encryption through the OpenSSL libraries. 

This encryption protocol supports two different ports, i.e., TCP and UDP. The TCP port is secure and reliable but offers slow speed, whereas the UDP ports ensure fast connection speed. The best thing about the OpenVPN protocol is its configurability. It supports all major devices and operating systems. Moreover, OpenVPN comes as a by-default VPN protocol in most service providers. 

The protocol also doesn’t have any known vulnerability, making it entirely secure and reliable to use. 

2. IKEv2

  • Offers fast and stable connection
  • Easy to use and handle
  • Supports various encryption protocols
  • Closed source
  • Firewalls can block it

The Internet Key Exchange Version 2 (IKEv2) is a VPN encryption protocol developed to collaborate between Cisco and Microsoft. The VPN protocol offers a fast connection and uses a MOBILE protocol, making it a perfect choice for mobile phone users who switch between cellular data and WiFi networks. 

It uses AES cipher and thus doesn’t make any compromise on security. However, on its own, IKEv2 doesn’t provide any encryption. It combines with an authentication suite like IPSec to encrypt your data traffic. IPSec uses AES-256 bit ciphers and helps in data encryption. Experts suggest that IKEv2 works on UDP port 500 that the firewalls and WiFi administrators can easily block. Thus, it is not a very effective protocol to use in countries with restrictive regimes like China. 

3. L2TP/IPSec

  • Reliable to use
  • Bypass firewall
  • Offers double encapsulation feature
  • Slow and sluggish speeds
  • Vulnerable

L2TP combines with IPSec to give a hybrid L2TP/IPSec protocol for securing the data traffic. This VPN protocol either uses AES or 3DES ciphers for data encryption. Although the 3DES cipher is vulnerable to Man-in-the-Middle attacks, the AES cipher is secure to use and free from any vulnerabilities. It won’t compromise your online security and privacy. Another impressive feature of this encryption protocol is that it offers a double encapsulation feature. It means that your data is wrapped into two layers which increases your security. 

Like the OpenVPN protocol, it also supports all operating systems and VPN devices, so; you won’t face any configuration issues. Many people consider it more secure than the OpenVPN because it can help get around firewalls, but fast speeds aren’t guaranteed in all these. Another drawback of using L2TP/IPSec is that the NSA previously compromised IPSec, so there’s a doubt that such a thing can happen again.

4. WireGuard

  • Open-source
  • Offers fast speed
  • No known vulnerability or security issue
  • Supported by limited VPN providers

WireGuard was released recently in 2019, and since then, it has emerged as an excellent encryption protocol. It is one of the fastest VPN encryption protocols that are three times faster than the OpenVPN protocol. Instead of using the AES cipher, it uses the ChaCha20 cipher, which is also secure. 

But since it is newly released, not many VPN providers support this protocol. Also, there are no known vulnerabilities found in this protocol so, if you want to try it out, go ahead. 

Other common VPN protocols

The other encryption protocols include SSTP and PPTP. They are the conventional encryption protocols that come with severe vulnerabilities, the poor security and can be exploited by hackers. For instance, the point-to-point encryption protocol was likely cracked by the NSA. Also, it offers a low-security level and can get blocked easily. 

Similarly, the Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is a proprietary protocol owned by Microsoft. The protocol uses TCP port 443, which is difficult to block by the firewall, but it comes with security loopholes. Like the PPTP, it has its links with the NSA. Moreover, it is also vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks known as POODLE.  

All these privacy and security concerns make PPTP and SSTP rule out from the race of the best VPN protocols.

What Are Encryption Ciphers?

An encryption cipher is an algorithm or system used to encrypt and decrypt the data. It encrypts the data by replacing letters and numbers through well-defined steps. The more keys a cipher has, the more complex it will be and the harder it is to break the encryption.

The following are the main types of encryption ciphers that a VPN uses:

  • Blowfish

The OpenVPN encryption protocol uses Blowfish as a default encryption cipher. It is a 128-bit key cipher but can range from 32 to 448 bits. Moreover, it is free to use and is faster than other encryption algorithms such as Data Encryption Standard (DES). But because of its small block size, it was vulnerable to Birthday Attacks that could compromise the encryption algorithm and thus replaced Twofish. 

  • Twofish

Twofish is the successor of the Blowfish cipher that uses symmetric encryption. It uses a 128-bit block size that can extend up to a 256-bit key. This encryption cipher is secure to use, but the only reason why it is now obsolete is that it has slower speeds.

  • AES

AES is the industry’s highest encryption cipher that uses 128-bit, 192-bit, and 256-bit keys. It is one of the safest encryption ciphers available; the US government even uses that. It is also a part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology certification. 

  • Camellia

It is similar to AES cipher both in terms of speed and security. It also supports 128-bit, 192-bit, and 256-bit keys. However, its major downside is that it is not NIST certified. Also, it is rarely available and tested on the VPN software. 

  • 3DES

It is another name for the triple DES cipher, which means the data encryption standard is used three times. Even though it supports 168-bit keys, it is still slower than Blowfish. Also,  the cipher will be phased out after 2023 because of the collision attacks in the 3DES and other 64-bit cipher suites. 

  • RSA

It is an encryption cipher that uses a 1024-bit key. The longer the RSA key is, the more secure it is. Thus, the NIST security experts suggest that using a minimum key size of either 2048-bit or 4096-bit is a better option when there are higher risks of threats. The major drawback of the RSA algorithm is that it offers slow speed when you have to encrypt a large amount of data by using the same device. Also, any middleman who accesses the public-key system can compromise the privacy it offers.

  •  MPPE

It is a Microsoft Point-to-Point Encryption cipher used for PPTP connections and dial-up connections. The cipher supports either 48-bit, 56-bit, or 128-bit keys. It provides data security to the PPTP connections between the VPN client and the remote VPN server. 

  • ChaCha20

It is an alternative to AES that uses a 256-bit key which is considered the most secure. According to experts, it is three times faster than AES, and the best thing is that it doesn’t have any severe vulnerability that risks your security.

All these encryption ciphers are best in one way or the other. The best VPN providers use more than one algorithm like they can use RSA, Chacha20, and AES-256 bit algorithm to protect the data traffic from the prying eyes. 

Why Is VPN Encryption Important?

The fundamental purpose of using a VPN is to guard your online security and privacy. VPNs safeguard your data from online surveillance and help browse the internet privately. It won’t be wrong to say that one can not neglect the importance of VPN encryption. It keeps all our sensitive data, including banking details, financial documents, login credentials, business data, and other personal data, protected from spying eyes on the network. 

If you’re using a public WiFi network, VPN encryption by changing your traffic into undetectable form makes you more anonymous over the web. It protects your activities from cybercriminals and makes it impossible for them to enter your network. 

Other than this, some of the other benefits of VPN encryption include:

  • It prevents you from online tracking and surveillance. You can browse the web without any restrictions. This is of great help in countries that have an authoritarian rule, such as China.
  • All your activities are hidden from your ISP; you can stream and download torrents without the fear of getting caught.
  • Your ISP can’t see what you’re doing online, so they won’t be able to throttle your connection, and you can surf the web at a fast speed.
  • While torrenting, you don’t have to worry about receiving warning letters from ISPs or copyright owners. 

For all these reasons, it’s better not to overlook VPN encryption.

Do All VPNs Use Encryption?

VPN encryption vouches out the level of security and online protection offered by a VPN. It ensures that all your data traffic is hidden and no one can detect it so that you can browse the web with some peace of mind. 

If a VPN fails to encrypt your data traffic, you become vulnerable to online tracking and surveillance. Even hackers and other threat actors can take advantage of this and can compromise your privacy. But why might a VPN fail to encrypt the data when it is its fundamental goal? 

Well! To your shock, not all VPN providers come with data encryption features. This especially goes with the free VPN providers. Although they might claim that they encrypt the data and protect users’ online privacy when tested, they don’t secure your data. 

Even if they provide encryption, it uses less secure encryption protocols such as L2TP and PPTP, a weak cipher, and a small encryption key. It’s not just the free VPN; in fact, premium VPNs can have poorly configured VPN encryption, resulting in data leaks and making your data content visible to anyone on your network. 

Thus, if you want to enjoy strong encryption, use the best, most secure VPN providers. 

How Can I Check My VPN Encryption?

If a VPN fails to encrypt the data correctly, it obliterates the entire idea of using a VPN. Thus a VPN encryption test is necessary to check if your VPN is maintaining your data security or not. 

You can even test VPN encryption on your own by using tools like Wireshark and Glasswire. Both of them are free to download and use, so; you probably won’t encounter any issues. Below are the step-by-step instructions on how to test VPN encryption. So, let’s get started with it. 

1. Through Wireshark

Wireshark is a famous data analyzing software that supports more than two thousand protocols, including the old ones and the latest ones. When you use this tool, it determines the data packets within your traffic and displays the results in plain and readable text that anyone can understand. 

The following mentioned below are the steps for using the Wireshark software for data encryption:

  1. Download and install the Wireshark software on your device. 
  2. Run the software. Turn on your VPN connection and connect to a server of your choice. 
  3. Select Ethernet or WiFi as the network interface and start recording. 
  4. Next, under the Protocol section, choose OpenVPN. You can also select another encryption protocol of your choice if you want. 
  5. Right-click on the OpenVPN packet to see which port it is using. 
  6. If you don’t see scrambled or unreadable data, your VPN isn’t encrypting your data. 

You can repeat the test to satisfy yourself. But if you obtain the same results, then you need to think about changing your service provider. 

2. Through Glasswire

It is another tool for testing VPN encryption. Here are the steps for using this tool:

  1. Download and install the free Glasswire software onto your device. 
  2. Run the software while connecting to a VPN server. 
  3. Next, browse the internet and download any random files. 
  4. Head towards the Usage tab and select the Apps section. 
  5. Look out for the VPN you’re using and check out its encryption standards. 

Both the methods are reliable and give off the best results. You can use any of them to determine your VPN encryption.

What Is the Most Secure Encryption Protocol?

A VPN uses multiple encryption protocols to transfer your encrypted data. Generally, there are six basic types of encryption protocols, namely, OpenVPN, WireGuard, IKEv2. L2TP/IPSec, PPTP, and SSTP. Among all, the OpenVPN protocol is the most secure and reliable to use. 

It is based on an open-sourced software that uses the OpenSSL libraries and TLS protocol to keep your communications private. The OpenVPN protocol supports two ports UDP and TCP. The UDP is for fast connection speed while the TCP maintains your security. Depending on your need you can select any of the ports.

Besides the OpenVPN protocol, WireGuard is also a safe protocol to use. But, since it is new, it needs to develop more. Also, unlike the OpenVPN protocol, it isn’t supported by all the VPN providers. So, as a whole, OpenVPN remains the top choice. 

Does a VPN Use Symmetric or Asymmetric Encryption?

VPN uses public-key encryption or asymmetric encryption to transfer your data. When you connect to a VPN, it uses the public key of the VPN client to encrypt the key and sends it to the client. Later, the client program on your device decrypts the data content using its own private key. 

Final Thoughts

VPN encryption plays a critical role while you browse the web. Without it, all your activities and data traffic are visible to ISP and other prying eyes. When a VPN encrypts your data, it transforms it into a jumbled and undetectable form, making it impossible for anyone to know what you are doing online. But, encryption is quite a complex process. It uses various encryption ciphers, algorithms, and protocols before it makes you anonymous over the internet. 

Hopefully, this detailed guide will better understand VPN encryption and how a VPN encrypts your data. Use a VPN that provides strong encryption and enjoy maximum online protection.

Kenneth G Aranda

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