Should You Use a VPN Browser Extension?
While looking at what a VPN can do for you, you may have come across something called a VPN browser extension. These are handy little gadgets that can help keep you safe while browsing, but they have some drawbacks that you should be aware of. Let’s see what VPN browser extensions are and if you should use one.
How a VPN Works
To fully understand how a VPN browser extension works, we need to look at what VPNs are and what they can do. Normally, when you go online, you connect to a server run by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and from there to the site you want to visit. In this scenario, the site knows who you are and your ISP can see what you are doing there.
When you use a VPN, you connect from your ISP’s server to a server managed by your VPN provider and only then to the site you are visiting. Forwarding your connection allows you to use the IP address associated with the VPN server rather than your own, known as “spoofing”, which is great when you want to stop the site from tracking you.
In addition to redirecting your connection, the VPN also creates what is called a VPN tunnel. This encrypts your connection, making it impossible to see what you’re doing online by anyone watching, whether it’s your ISP or some kind of surveillance.
Use a VPN
The most common way to connect to a VPN server is through what’s called a VPN client, a program from your VPN provider that you install on your computer or mobile phone, although they’re usually called “apps”. “. Usually all you have to do is choose a server to connect to, then press a button and that’s it, you’ve established a secure connection to the internet. (Modern operating systems have built-in VPN support, but it’s almost always easier to use your VPN provider’s client instead.)
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When you use a VPN client, all internet traffic to and from your device is encrypted and shows the spoofed IP address. The only exception is if you are using some kind of split tunneling to run certain programs without the benefit of the VPN.
However, the client is not the only way to activate a VPN connection. You can use a VPN router, for example, which automatically connects every device on a given WiFi network to a VPN server. Another easier option is to use a browser extension instead.
VPN browser extensions
A browser extension is a small application or program that can extend the capabilities of your browser. For example, you can get an extension that will cut out specific parts of a text so you can save it for later, or you can get one that works as a powerful password manager.
Many, if not most, VPNs also offer browser extensions that allow you to connect to a VPN directly from your browser, or at least use some of the features associated with your VPN. ExpressVPN and NordVPN offer them, for example, and they’re great little tools to have.
However, as ExpressVPN explains, VPN browser extensions have a serious downside: they only protect your traffic while browsing, they don’t, like a client, protect all of your internet traffic. There are a handful of VPNs that defy this rule, such as Private Internet Access, but in most cases you can assume that a VPN browser extension only works for the browser it’s installed on.
The exception is if your VPN client is already running and you then activate the browser extension. In this case, you use the extension as a way to control the client (ExpressVPN, among others, offers this functionality) and all your traffic is protected.
This means that if you engage your VPN through your browser extension without a client running, you are protected when visiting websites. However, if you run a torrent program at the same time, anyone can see that you are doing it with all the consequences you expect.
In a way, it’s like split tunneling, but you only run your browser inside the tunnel. That’s not too bad, as it’s a great way to circumvent VPN speed issues. For example, if you download a large game through Steam, you can use your browser extension to browse anonymously without slowing down your download.
Should You Use a VPN Browser Extension?
VPN browser extensions are handy little apps that are extremely useful in the right situation, such as if you want to use your browser with some measure of anonymity while letting background programs run without interference.
That said, there is a small danger in using them as it can lull you into a false sense of security. If you only use your VPN to protect your browsing, you can use them without worry. If you are a torrent enthusiast or use your VPN to run other programs, always make sure your client is running as well.
Most of the best VPNs offer optional browser extensions, including our favorite VPN, ExpressVPN.