VPN vs Encryption – Awesome Complete Analysis

By George Mutune •  Updated: 01/15/22 •  13 min read

The use of VPN vs Encryption is an important topic due to the increasingly remote workforce. For example, at least 4.7 million people in the US prefer working remotely, and Global Workplace Analytics estimates 25-30% of employees worldwide will be remote-based by the end of 2021.

More than 36 million Americans will be working remotely. That said, whether employees are working remotely from home, the airport, or a local coffee shop, they require secure access and connection to organizational networks and resources. In most cases, they may connect to company networks using their home Wi-Fi or local networks, whose security shortcomings leave little to be desired.

For example, connecting mobile devices to a public wireless network connection and transmitting sensitive information like credit card numbers exposes online security risks, such as interception and eavesdropping. In addition, attackers can exploit security weaknesses, such as misconfigured Wi-Fi routers, weak password security, and outdated router firmware to intercept and steal sensitive data. With experts predicting that the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots may exceed 628 million by 2023, hackers will be looking to exploit increasing vulnerabilities. Some of the top wireless network threats are:

  1. Personal data interception: Attackers can snoop around wireless networks to intercept web browser traffic/online activity and exfiltrate personal information, such as credit card information, IP addresses, to a remote server. A 2021 report forecasts that theft of personal data will affect at least 250/ million individuals, although more than 310 million people were data theft victims in 2020. Due to this, most organizations urge employees to use a virtual private network (VPN) when establishing remote access to ensure online privacy.
  2. Increased attacks on companies: Some employees may use a public network to send sensitive emails without establishing a VPN server connection. The network could be a rogue access point under a hacker’s control. Most organizations have implemented various security measures to protect internal networks from attacks, but connecting to the networks using insecure and unencrypted public Wi-Fi networks may result in cyberattacks.
  3. Man-in-the-middle attacks: These are common techniques attackers use to impersonate to eavesdrop on user connections and communications. Essentially, attackers position themselves between a user and a server, enabling them to capture all transmitted information and network traffic. In 2020, man-in-the-middle attackers contributed 16% of all reported network attacks, underscoring the essence of implementing recommended network security measures like VPN services and encryption mechanisms.
  4. Network snooping: Network snooping is one of the popular methods that man-in-the-middle attackers use to monitor and intercept outgoing and incoming network traffic. The attacks are relatively easy to launch and execute since adversaries require scanning tools, such as Wireshark, to scan for network security loopholes and exploit them to snoop transmitted traffic. As such, adversaries can easily see and intercept sensitive information, including credit card information, passwords, and crucial business data.

Securing Your Network with Encryption

Numerous organizations constantly suffer unending network security flaws and breaches, threatening the confidentiality, availability, and integrity of essential network resources, applications, and data. Suffice to say, there is no single entity that can achieve the perfect cybersecurity posture to protect data from unwanted access, ward of attacks, and prevent data breaches entirely. In this case, organizational cybersecurity teams and employees must take stringent security actions to protect sensitive information and ensure robust network security.

Securing network communications requires the implementation of recommended security controls, among them being HTTPS encryption, SSL encryption, and consistent use of VPN provider technologies. In reality, strong network security calls for deploying and configuring encryption approaches and VPN services from proven VPN vendors. Some of the vital network security measures to consider include:

1.     HTTPS Encryption

HTTPS encryption protects network communications and information from unauthorized access, tampering, and unauthorized modification by encrypting the HTTP connections. As a result, accessing websites with HTTPS encryption implies that cyber adversaries are less likely to access, read, or modify the contents transmitted between your browser and a web server. However, users are not responsible and do not have control over HTTPS encryption since a website operator is responsible for setting up and configuring a secure HTTPS connection.

Users should note that not all sites contain the essential HTTPS encryption. Websites whose URLs begin with HTTP only mean that users communicate with a web server via an insecure connection since it does not encrypt the transmitted traffic. Accessing websites lacking HTTPS encryption poses significant security threats, such as man-in-the-middle attacks, where hackers can intercept and modify communicated data. Worse, accessing sites without HTTPS encryption can permit attackers to inject spyware and malware on your computer, which may cause an entire organization to be vulnerable to multiple attacks.

For example, one of the greatest threats of accessing websites lacking HTTPS encryption is injection attacks, where hackers can inject HTML and JavaScript payloads into the unencrypted network traffic. Once the payloads execute, sophisticated threat actors may launch devastating attacks, including Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, preventing victim companies from continuing daily business activities. However, it is worth noting that an HTTPS encryption protocol alone does secure your network connections adequately. Other internet activities also require unique encryption mechanisms.

2.     Encrypting Wireless Routers

Wireless connections are susceptible to numerous online attacks since companies don’t require a physical connection to their networks. Attackers can thus target Wi-Fi networks to steal data remotely. For example, an adversary can access and intercept wireless network communications using readily available hacking tools from the parking lot. Luckily, it is easy to secure a wireless network by encrypting a Wi-Fi router.

The highest recommended router encryption method is the WAP2 encryption standard. Companies can access the WAP2 encryption standard by login into the Wi-Fi router’s page and enabling it in the router settings. Turning on the WAP2 encryption standard secures a wireless network by encrypting data transmitted between a wireless device and the Wi-Fi network. Wireless router encryption prevents attackers from eavesdropping on the network traffic transmitted via a Wi-Fi connection, preventing unauthorized access to sensitive information.

In addition, encrypting a wireless router ensures network integrity by enabling an authentication protocol to prevent malicious users from connecting. Unencrypted routers can allow unauthorized users to connect to a wireless network, intercept, and exfiltrate confidential data. Also, malicious actors can connect to unencrypted Wi-Fi networks and use them for illegal activities. Unauthorized access to a network not only poses a security risk but also threatens network performance and speed.

3.     SSL/TLS Encryption

SSL/TLS is a recommended network encryption standard that ensures secure communication between a web server and a client. SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is an older version than TLS (Transport Layer Security), which experts consider more secure. However, they serve the same purpose – encrypt network traffic to protect data transmitted through an internet or computer network.

Implementing SSL/TLS encryption prevents internet service providers and adversarial actors from viewing, accessing, or tampering with information shared between two nodes – often between an app or web server and a web browser. Website owners and administrators have the prerogative to implement SSL/TLS encryption to ensure an encrypted secure connection for the secure exchange of sensitive information, including payment data, passwords, and personal information.

Specifically, SSL/TLS utilizes symmetric and asymmetric encryption to preserve the integrity and confidentiality of data in transit. Asymmetric encryption provides a secure session when a client requests information from a server. Similarly, symmetric encryption also ensures a secure session to ensure the security of transmitted data. Companies require to purchase and implement an SSL/TLS certificate for their domains and web servers to use the SSL/TLS encryption standards. Upon the installation of the SSL/TLS certificate, a client can communicate with a server securely, as demonstrated in the following steps:

  1. The client uses a secure HTTPS URL to contact and connect to a server.
  2. Once the server receives a connection request, it uses a public key to send its certificate to the client.
  3. The client uses a Trusted Root Certification Authority to verify the server’s certificate to ascertain that it is legitimate.
  4. The server and the client then negotiate a strong encryption type that they both support.
  5. The client then encrypts a secret key, also called the session key, using the server’s public key, which is then sent back to the server.
  6. The server receives the public key and uses its private key to decrypt the traffic or communication received from the client.
  7. SSL/TLS uses symmetric encryption (session key) to encrypt data and decrypt it as it is exchanged between the server and the client.

A complete handshake negotiation permits the server and client to use HTTPS (SSL/TLS over HTTP) to encrypt all transmitted data. You can validate that a website is SSL/TLS enabled by checking if it has a lock icon on the browser’s address bar. After a user stops accessing a website, the server and client discard their encryption keys and negotiate a new handshake once a user tries to access a website on the next visit. SSL/TLS encryption enhances security by ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of transmitted data. Nevertheless, cybercriminals can also use encryption to inject malicious payloads. Therefore, it is vital to implement inspection tools like IDS/IPS, secure web gateways, and next-generation firewalls to ensure effective SSL/TLS decryption.

Securing Your Network Using a VPN vs Encryption

HTTPS, SSL/TLS, and router encryption provide important functionalities protecting users’ online activities. Although most users grapple with which is better between network encryption and the use of a VPN service, they are great security tools for securing online communications. In addition, you can use them to complement each other for enhanced security and a more secure browsing experience.

While encryption ensures the integrity and confidentiality of online activities by encrypting network traffic and communications to prevent unauthorized access, a VPN service hides a user’s online identity. As a result, VPN protocols hide data and user activities from snooping governments, internet service providers, and malicious cyber adversaries. In particular, a VPN provides an encrypted secure tunnel between devices like mobile devices, laptops, tablets, desktop computers, and laptops and insecure networks like public Wi-Fis.

Using a VPN requires organizations to acquire VPN clients for employees from a trusted virtual private network provider and install them in devices used to communicate sensitive information. You can also opt to use free VPNs to achieve the same goals but with limited features and capabilities.

Most VPN tools are free and easily accessible from various internet services and internet providers. However, companies should consider commercial VPN solutions that provide advanced services. For example, a commercial VPN supports connectivity to multiple servers from various parts of the world. More importantly, commercial VPNs tunnel all communications and internet traffic transmitted between servers and user devices to prevent governments and internet service provider from tracking it.

Additionally, commercial VPNs mask users’ real IP addresses with those corresponding to a particular server in a given location to give the impression that users are accessing the internet from a different location. It is an essential feature that protects and hides a user’s privacy and area, which is vital in protecting against attacks. For example, a user may be browsing the internet from the USA, but a VPN can tunnel the network traffic to appear as if the user is located in Germany. The benefits of using a VPN to protect the online identity and privacy include:

VPN vs Encryption – Similarities

A VPN is a third-party software solution that helps users enhance online privacy and protect their identities when an insecure network. On the other hand, HTTPS encryption is an internet protocol that ensures the secure transmission of sensitive data via the internet by providing a safe, encrypted connection. Third parties offer VPN solutions that do not require HTTPS encryption to function and vice versa, but they can complement each other. The primary similarities and differences include:

VPN vs Encryption – Which is Better?

Encryption tools and VPN solutions provide different functionalities to prevent unauthorized malicious entities from accessing sensitive network information. Therefore, using both adds enhanced security to online communications to ensure user privacy and prevent unwanted access to sensitive information. However, it is vital to note that HTTPS encryption must be enabled on a website or browser, whereas a VPN solution works anytime once installed. Also, HTTPS encryption may be vulnerable to attacks like root certificate attacks, whereas VPN protects against different attacks. Besides, while HTTPS is only used for end-to-end encryption, VPN encrypts an entire device.

George Mutune

I am a cyber security professional with a passion for delivering proactive strategies for day to day operational challenges. I am excited to be working with leading cyber security teams and professionals on projects that involve machine learning & AI solutions to solve the cyberspace menace and cut through inefficiency that plague today's business environments.