These Are All the Ways Your VPN Can Leak
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These Are All the Ways Your VPN Can Leak

Is your VPN really keeping you anonymous?

For some people, VPNs are crucial tools that allow them to live and work safely. For others, they’re a great way to add a little bit of extra security when using public WiFi. No matter what the purpose, a VPN leak can get in the way and cause serious danger.

In some cases, this could mean death or imprisonment. In others, it might mean that a person’s controversial internet activity is linked back to them. This is why it’s so important to be aware of VPN leaks and learn how to avoid them.

Let’s hash it out.

What Is a VPN Leak?

Using a VPN is a great first step for boosting your privacy and security, but it doesn’t automatically guarantee either property. Among other problems, your VPN can leak. This means that the data is not being properly protected, and either your internet activity can be linked back to your identity, or your information could be exposed to snoopers.

The idea behind VPNs is that they create encrypted tunnels between the client on your computer (or device) and the VPN server, where the data is decrypted before heading to its destination, such as a website.

When everything is working correctly, this setup prevents anyone from linking your internet activity back to your identity, and stops attackers from intercepting your data along the path between your device and the VPN server.

All that a third party will be able to access is a bunch of jumbled and meaningless ciphertext. This means that no one except your VPN provider can tell what you are looking at online, or what data you are sending and receiving.

A VPN leak occurs when things aren’t working as they should, and the data that is exposed allows interceptors to associate your activity with your identity. If this happens, anyone spying on you may be able to find out what you are actually doing, and the whole effort of using a VPN could be pointless.

If your VPN is leaking, you may be just as vulnerable as someone who doesn’t use one. For political activists and dissidents, this could mean that the authorities are able to access everything that they are doing. If your VPN leaks while you are using public WiFi, hackers might be able to get ahold of your data.

VPN leaks are especially dangerous, because people often feel more comfortable in engaging in risky online activity when they think that their VPN is protecting them. If a VPN is leaking without the user’s knowledge, they could end up in serious trouble.

The Different Ways That VPNs Can Leak

There are several different types of VPN leakages, including DNS leaks, WebRTC leaks, IP address leaks and traffic leaks.

DNS Leaks

DNS leaks occur when your Domain Name System (DNS) requests go to your ISP instead of your VPN provider. The Domain Name System is a directory that translates domain names into IP addresses.

Under normal circumstances, when you want to visit a site like thesslstore.com, your computer sends a DNS query to the DNS server, which turns the URL into the site’s IP address, 107.23.230.173. The whole process basically just translates things from our language into machine language.

When you use a VPN, your DNS request should go to the VPN provider instead, so that your ISP can’t find out what you are up to. If your VPN isn’t working properly and the DNS request goes to your ISP, this exposes the site you are visiting to both your ISP and anyone who is snooping on you. If you are doing something that requires absolute privacy, DNS leaks can be very dangerous.

You can check to see if your DNS is leaking at DNS leak test. If it is, you may be able to fix the problem by reconfiguring your network, editing the .ovpn file, disabling Teredo (for Windows), or installing a plugin.

WebRTC Leaks

Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) allows us to watch or listen to content without having to install plugins. In particular, WebRTC is often used for browser-based VoIP apps like Skype for Web, Discord, and Google Hangouts. It’s a useful project, but it has a serious flaw that affects VPN users. This vulnerability exposes a person’s true IP address to the websites that they visit via javascript.

Thankfully, there’s a relatively easy solution to this problem. People may be able to protect themselves by changing the settings on their ad blocker if they use one. Otherwise, Firefox users can install the Disable WebRTC addon, while Chrome users can install the WebRTC Block extension.

Doing this can eliminate some of the functionality on web pages that utilize WebRTC, but at least your IP address will no longer leak to websites.

IP Address Leaks

Your Internet Protocol (IP) address is the address of the router that you are using to make your internet connection. Under normal circumstances, when you connect to a website, the site administrators, your ISP, and anyone snooping in can see the IP address of your router. Obviously, this isn’t very private.

When a VPN is working properly, your ISP will be able to see that you are connecting to a VPN server, but they won’t be able to see where your traffic is going afterwards.

On the other side of the VPN, the site administrator will see the data coming from the VPN exit server, but they won’t be able to determine the IP address of where the data originates. This setup protects your IP address from being exposed.

There are two different IP protocols, IPv4 and IPv6. IPv4 has been used since the eighties, while IPv6 is a newer version that became a standard in 2017. Most people are still using IPv4, so some VPNs haven’t caught up and configured their service appropriately for IPv6. This can cause IPv6 users of those services to have IP address leaks.

You can check whether you are using IPv4 or IPv6 on the WhatIsMyIP site. If you are only using IPv4, you have nothing to worry about in this case.

If you have IPv6 and your IP address is leaking through your VPN, it’s possible to fix the issue without having to change providers. You can disable IPv6 and revert back to IPv4 with the following tutorials for Windows or Mac OSX.

Traffic Leaks

These are the worst kind of leaks, and they involve the entirety of your traffic leaking outside of the VPN tunnel. If you have a traffic leak, your ISP and anyone spying on you will be able to see all of your data.

Traffic leaks can often occur when your connection is interrupted. This is why it’s important to choose a VPN provider that offers a kill switch for its clients. If your VPN ever fails, these kill switches kick in and abort your connection. If your VPN fails without a kill switch, your internet connection may continue and all of your traffic will be exposed.

Persistent vs Triggered Leaks

These leaks come in three major forms:

Pre-existing Persistent Leaks

Pre-existing persistent leaks can be caused by issues with your VPN or its configuration. If you have one of these, some of your data will always be leaking, and you will be able to pick it up with the tests mentioned above.

Triggered Persistent Leaks

These leaks are triggered by certain events, such as a disruption to your internet connection, or the VPN crashing. Once the trigger occurs, the VPN will continue to leak data until the issue is rectified. If the event has already happened, these leaks will show up easily on tests.

Temporary Triggered Leaks

Temporary triggered leaks occur after certain disruption events, but the data only leaks temporarily. These are the hardest to detect, because none of the tests in this article will pick them up unless the trigger event is actually occurring while you test it.

This makes these leaks especially problematic, because users may never find out that their VPN is prone to leaking under certain conditions.

How to Stop Your VPN from Leaking

Some VPNs are poorly configured and are far more prone to leaks than others. This is why it’s important to choose a reliable VPN service before you get started. If you are struggling to find a VPN provider that suits your needs, look into one of the more reputable options such as ExpressVPN.

If you are experiencing VPN leaks and can’t get out of the contract with your service provider, you may still be able to remedy the situation. Try the diagnostic tests mentioned above and find out what the actual problem is.

Once you know what is causing the leaks, you can try some of the remedies that we have talked about. If they don’t work, try doing a search for your VPN provider and your particular problem to see if other users are experiencing it as well. They may be able to provide you with the solutions you need to browse safely.

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Author

Paul Bischoff

Paul Bischoff is a consumer privacy expert and editor of Comparitech.com, a security-focused tech research and comparison site.