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What is a VPN tunnel and how does it keep your data secure?

Verified by Nick Jones

Discover what a VPN tunnel is, how it works and why it’s crucial for safeguarding your data. Learn about VPN split tunnelling, tunnel protocols and the best practices for securing online activities.

Understanding the concept of a VPN tunnel is essential in this era of increasing online threats and privacy concerns. This article explains what a VPN tunnel is, how it protects your data and the different protocols used in VPN tunnelling.

Maintaining privacy and protecting sensitive information is paramount in today’s digital world. With the rapid expansion of the internet and the increasing amount of sensitive data shared online, it’s essential to understand and use tools that can help protect your information. 

One such tool that has gained significant popularity for safeguarding online activities is the Virtual Private Network (VPN). It shields your browsing activity from prying eyes, creates a secure tunnel for your data to travel through and masks your IP address. Let’s delve deeper into this guide on VPN tunnels and explore their benefits.

What is a VPN tunnel?

A VPN tunnel is a secure, encrypted connection that enables a user’s device to link to the internet through a VPN server. 

When you connect to the internet via a VPN, all your internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, ensuring your data remains safe and protected from prying eyes, such as your internet service provider (ISP), government agencies, or cyberhackers attempting to monitor your activities over free public wifi. It serves as a firewall, preventing unauthorised individuals or entities from accessing or intercepting your online activities. 

It not only protects your data from being intercepted, but it also hides your IP address and encrypts the data that travels through the internet and the data you generate while chatting online and browsing the web.

How does VPN tunnelling work?

Diagram showing how VPN tunnelling works on Indy red background
VPN tunnelling essentially creates a secure connection between your device and the website or service you’re trying to access (Adobe)

VPN tunnelling is the technique of securely transmitting data from one device or network to another and back again without compromising data privacy. VPN tunnelling employs a combination of encryption and encapsulation techniques, which we’ll discuss later. 

When you connect to a VPN server, your device creates a secure tunnel using robust encryption protocols. All data passing through this tunnel is encapsulated within encrypted packets, making it inaccessible to anyone attempting to intercept or access it. This encryption protects your browsing activities, emails, messages and all other online communications, thus securing you from online threats.

What is VPN split tunnelling?

VPN split tunnelling is an advanced feature that allows you to direct certain types of traffic through the VPN tunnel while simultaneously accessing other resources directly from your ISP. With split tunnelling, you can select which applications or websites you want to use the VPN tunnel and which ones to bypass it. 

This feature offers greater flexibility, as you can prioritise security for sensitive data while accessing local resources with your regular internet connection. This can help maintain internet speed where it’s important and also allows you to access both local content and websites or services from your home country while you’re abroad.

Can a VPN tunnel be hacked?

A VPN tunnel can be hacked, but it is extremely difficult to do so due to its robust security. VPNs are designed to provide strong encryption and secure connections, making it virtually impossible for attackers to intercept or compromise data sent through the tunnel. In rare circumstances, competent and persistent attackers may exploit vulnerabilities or weaknesses in the VPN protocol or implementation. 

However, it’s important to note that no system is entirely foolproof. Selecting a trusted and reputable VPN service and regularly updating your software can greatly minimise the risk of a VPN tunnel being hacked.

Types of VPN tunnel protocols

Many different VPN tunnel protocols are used to set up secure tunnels between your device and the VPN server. Let’s explore some of the most commonly used protocols:

WireGuard

Speed: Extremely high

Security: Extremely high

WireGuard is the fastest protocol on the market and is useful when speed is your top priority. It’s a modern VPN protocol that’s popular for its performance, efficiency and simplicity. It’s also secure and lightweight, with only 4,000 lines of code, leaving less room for vulnerabilities and defects. It’s transparent and easy to customise and troubleshoot. Compared to competing protocols, WireGuard’s streamlined architecture allows for faster connections and lower latency. NordVPN has built its own version of the protocol called NordLynx, which combines the speed of WireGuard with enhanced privacy measures.

OpenVPN

Speed: High

Security: High

OpenVPN is an open-source protocol that’s extremely flexible and compatible with all major operating systems (Windows, macOS, Android and iOS). It’s also one of the fastest and most secure VPN tunnelling technologies. For example, ExpressVPN users can choose between a User Datagram Protocol (UDP) (best for speed) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) (best for connection dependability). Its strong encryption, flexibility and versatility make it a popular choice among VPN users.

IKEv2

Speed: High

Security: High

One of the newer protocols available to users, Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) is a safe and secure VPN protocol primarily used for mobile devices due to its ability to seamlessly manage network changes, such as switching between wifi and cellular data. It offers high-level security as well as quick reconnection capabilities. However, there are some operating systems that it’s incompatible with.

PPTP

Speed: High

Security: Very poor

Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP) is an older VPN protocol known for its simplicity and ease of use. While it offers fast speeds, PPTP’s security is not as robust as other protocols, so it is recommended to use more secure alternatives whenever possible.

L2TP

Speed: Normal 

Security: Normal

Layer 2 Tunnelling Protocol (L2TP) is used in conjunction with Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) to produce a more secure tunnelling protocol than PPTP. Still, it’s a slow and outdated protocol, contains multiple vulnerabilities and there have been allegations that it has been compromised by the National Security Agency (NSA). Because of the double encapsulation of data, it’s regarded as a weak protocol.

SSTP

Speed: Normal

Security: High

Secure Socket Tunnelling Protocol (SSTP) is a Windows-based VPN protocol created by Microsoft. It offers high security by leveraging the Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) protocol, making it difficult to detect or block. SSTP is simple to set up and a safe protocol that can overcome firewalls.

What’s the best protocol to use?

Selecting the best VPN protocol depends on your specific needs and preferences. However, most modern VPN services offer automated protocol selection, which analyses your network conditions and selects the most suitable protocol for optimal security and performance. If you prefer manual control, OpenVPN and WireGuard are popular choices due to their strong security measures and widespread compatibility.

Conclusion

A VPN tunnel is an essential component of a VPN service that keeps your data secure and private while you browse the internet. By creating an encrypted pathway between your device and the VPN server, a VPN tunnel ensures your online activities remain private. When choosing a VPN, consider factors such as the VPN protocols it supports, its reputation for security, and whether it has a user-friendly interface. By making an informed choice, you can enjoy a safer and more secure online experience.

Round up of today’s best VPN deals
NordVPN 2 year £2.49 /Month
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Surfshark 24 month £1.79 /Month
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ExpressVPN 12 month £6.77 /Month
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CyberGhost 2 year £1.78 /Month
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Proton 2 year £4.27 /Month
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PIA 2 year £1.57 /Month
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Atlas 2 year £1.34 /Month
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PrivadoVPN 2 year £1.99 /Month
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Windscribe 12 month £4.53 /Month
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IPVanish 2 year £3.58 /Month
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Nick Jones

Editor in Chief

Nick Jones is a highly experienced consumer journalist and editor, who has been writing and producing content for print and online media for over 25 years.

He has worked at some of the UK’s leading publishers including Future Publishing, Highbury Entertainment, and Imagine Publishing, with publications as diverse as Homebuilding & Renovating, TechRadar, and Creative Bloq, writing and editing content for audiences whose interests include history, computing, gaming, films, and science. He’s also produced a number of podcasts in the technology, science, gaming, and true crime genres.

Nick has also enjoyed a highly successful career in content marketing, working in a variety of topics such as health, technology, and finance, with market-leading global companies including Cisco, Pfizer, Santander, and Virgin Media.

Now the Editor-in-Chief of the Independent Advisor, Nick is involved in all aspects of the site’s content, where his expertise in finance, technology, and home products informs every article that’s published on-site. He takes a hands-on approach with our VPN content, penning a number of the articles himself, and verifying that everything we publish in this topic is accurate.

Whatever the area of interest he’s worked in, Nick has always been a consumer champion, helping people find the best deals and give them the information they need to make an informed buying decision.