VPN providers add all sorts of bonus features to try to attract new customers, and while some of them are marketing tricks, others have real value.
For example, NordVPN, private internet access, ProtonVPN and others have the ability to block ads, crawlers, fishing and malicious websites. Connecting to a VPN will keep you more secure online, and reducing ads can also improve your speed.
It’s easy to rule it out, especially if you already have antivirus, a security package, and a bunch of other antimalware apps. Once you have web filtering from a prominent antivirus provider, why do you need something more?
It seems to make sense, but there is a problem. Just connecting to the VPN can turn off some, if not all of your current browsing protection, which will leave you much more exposed than you might think. Keep reading and we’ll tell you why.
DNS filtering keeps you safe online
Security software can use various techniques to block malicious websites, but one of the most popular is DNS filtering. This is how it works.
When you enter a domain name like techradar.com in your browser, the device cannot immediately communicate with the site. You first need the IP address of the website. You do this by sending the domain name to your ISP’s DNS (Domain Name System) server, which searches for the site and returns the address.
Sometimes, security providers take advantage of this scheme by reconfiguring the device to use its own DNS server. Try to reach a URL that the company believes is malicious, the DNS server does not return the IP address, and you cannot access the site.
This does not offer as much protection as you will get with specialized software. A DNS filter can block or allow traffic, and that’s it. But a browser-based ad blocker can crawl web pages as they are downloaded, allowing you to make much smarter decisions about what to show and what not.
DNS filtering is easy, but because it includes your security application, it protects all your devices without having to install any additional security software.
VPN and DNS applications
One of the problems with DNS is that most devices send plain-text DNS queries, where they are easily accessible to others. If you use the Internet over public Wi-Fi, this may allow your Wi-Fi hotspot operator or nearby browsers to control the places you visit.
Connecting to a VPN fixes this, as the service replaces your current DNS server with your own and all DNS queries are sent through its secure encrypted tunnel.
While this is great for privacy, it’s bad news if you rely on this DNS server to block fishing sites, manage a parental control system, or anything else. This protection will almost certainly not be available while you are connected to the VPN.
Don’t be scared, that doesn’t mean you are left helpless. Most antivirus engines use multiple layers of protection and have many alternative ways to detect and block threats. Many applications do not use any DNS filtering, and for example, browser extensions that block ads are likely to work normally.
However, don’t just assume it’s safe. You need to find out more.
Make sure you are safe online
It is easy to test web filtering software to see if it works with a VPN. If you have a parental control application or anything that blocks access to certain types of websites, try accessing those sites with VPN turned off and then on.
When you can’t test, search the provider’s website for information on how it works. If web protection is based entirely on DNS filtering, it will probably be disabled when using a VPN; if you use any other technique, you are probably safe. If in doubt, contact the supplier and ask.
If your current VPN has a built-in web filter, make sure it’s turned on. In the NordVPN Windows VPN client, for example, go to Settings, General and enable the CyberSec option.
And the next time you buy VPN deals and see a provider offering malware blocking, you don’t automatically accept it. Of course, a VPN may not provide you with the same web protection as a specialized antivirus. But there’s no harm in having a second layer of security, and in some situations, it may be the only navigation protection you have.