Do VPNs Protect Mac From Malware and Cyber Threats? Debunking myths

8 Min Read

In the vast and wild world of the Internet, the term VPN — or Virtual Private Network — has been thrown around quite a bit. For many, it’s synonymous with online security, acting as the ultimate shield against cyber threats. But can it really protect your Mac from malware and cyber threats? Let’s debunk some common myths.

What is a VPN, and What Can it Do?

Put simply, a VPN is software that works to increase your level of anonymity on the web.

While VPNs have numerous benefits, their capabilities and limitations are often misunderstood, resulting in myths and misconceptions. So, let’s play the role of a myth-buster and clear up what a VPN can and cannot do when it comes to protecting your Mac from malware and cyber threats.

Myth #1: : A VPN can protect my Mac from all kinds of malware

A common misconception is that a VPN can protect your Mac against all kind of malware. While VPNs play a vital role in securing your online connections, they are not designed specifically to protect your Mac from malware and viruses. That’s the job of antivirus software.

Malware typically enters your system when you download infected files or visit compromised websites, activities a VPN doesn’t necessarily prevent. A VPN can’t inspect the contents of your downloads or the scripts on websites you visit for potential malware threats. So, if a website tries to plant a Trojan horse on your Mac, your VPN won’t leap into action and save the day. In fact, like any computer program, VPNs are susceptible to malware and online attacks. If infected, a VPN’s security benefits are nullified.

The likelihood of attacks and security breaches is increased by using a free VPN service. To recoup their business costs, "free" VPN services may sell user data or run ads that could be infected with malware.

Some VPN services come with built-in malware blockers that can add an extra layer of protection. These tools can block known malicious websites, prevent tracking cookies, and sometimes even scan downloads for threats. Yet, this doesn’t make a VPN a comprehensive solution for malware, as these features are typically supplementary to the main offering and can’t replace a full-featured antivirus.

To protect your Mac from malware, it’s crucial to employ a robust antivirus software alongside a VPN. Antivirus software continuously scans your device for any hints of danger. It compares running programs to known types of malware and assesses your computing activity to make sure there’s nothing out of the ordinary.

If the antivirus finds a suspicious code, it isolates it and removes the threat automatically. By combining the encryption provided by a VPN with the malware detection capabilities of antivirus software, you can significantly enhance your Mac’s security.

Myth #2: A VPN provides complete protection against all cyber threats.

Although VPNs are indispensable for online security, they can’t protect you from everything. Here are a few cyber-threats that a VPN can’t protect you from.

  • Malicious Software (Malware): Unless it has a built-in malware blocker, a VPN won’t protect your Mac from malware downloaded from the internet. Antivirus software is the only thing that can provide complete protection from malware.
  • Social Engineering & Phishing Attacks: By using personal data, like your email, name, workplace and names of relatives, a hacker can send targeted attacks, such as phishing emails, that seem to come from a legitimate sender — like the IRS or your boss — most of the time assuming a threatening tone. Because phishing attacks and other social engineering methods happen over email or other forms of communication, there’s nothing a VPN can do to protect you from them.
  • Software Security Flaws: Software, including operating systems, can have serious flaws in their security. A skilled attacker could exploit software vulnerabilities to gain access to your Mac, install malware, and even lock your device and demand ransom
  • Human Error: Even with the best VPN, antivirus and password manager, you can still fall prey to a cyberattack. By visiting a malicious website, acting on a phishing email or inadvertently downloading an infected file, you could become the victim of a cyberattack, regardless of the cybersecurity tools you use.

You need to use a multilayered approach to fully protect your Mac online, including using antivirus software, a password manager and two-factor authentication.

Myth #3: I don’t need antivirus software if I have a VPN

Another common myth is that a VPN can entirely replace the need for antivirus software on your Mac. As we’ve already pointed out, VPNs and antivirus software serve two different purposes. VPNs primarily focus on securing your internet connection and protecting your data in transit. As a result, every bit of incoming and outgoing traffic is encrypted, meaning you can’t be tracked online and spied on by your ISP, hackers, or anyone else.

While a VPN adds an extra layer of security to your online activities, it cannot replace the comprehensive protection provided by antivirus software. A VPN will NOT protect you from viruses and malware, although some of them have these features as an addition — NordVPN, for example.

Still, A VPN’s function is to ensure online privacy and allow you to hide your browsing activities. On the other hand, antivirus software is specifically designed to identify and eliminate malware from your system.

Antivirus software uses a variety of techniques, including signature-based detection, behavior monitoring, and heuristics, to detect and remove malware. It constantly updates its database with the latest malware signatures, ensuring that your Mac is protected against the newest threats. While a VPN can help protect your data while it’s in transit, antivirus software is essential for safeguarding your Mac from malware that may be present in files, applications, or malicious websites.

Myth #4: VPNs Make You Completely Anonymous

Many people believe that using a VPN can make them completely anonymous online. While a VPN is a great tool to help separate your location (and in many ways, you) from your data, it doesn’t obscure everything about you. In fact, no internet privacy tool can completely hide your online presence. A VPN can encrypt your data, obscure your IP address, and even protect you from online trackers, but entire anonymity isn’t possible.

If you take a Facebook quiz or like a post on Instagram, the app you are using while connected to the VPN is still able to use your behavior to tailor in-app ads and content. They might not know where you are browsing from, but they will still know what you are doing on their apps.

Similarly, if cookies are enabled on your Mac, companies can follow you while you are on their site–and after. Your full data isn’t obscured with a VPN alone. Combining a VPN’s protection with Tor, an open-source tool that allows you to browse the web anonymously, and other security measures are necessary for a fuller security.

Myth #5: VPNs Are Only Necessary When Using Public Wi-Fi

Many VPNs are designed to stop nefarious users from hacking into your network. That’s something that mostly affects public connections and is unlikely to happen from home.

However, while using your own private network means you can restrict who has access to your Wi-Fi connection, it’s not 100% private. That’s because you’re still connecting directly to your ISP. By doing so, your ISP is able to see what sites you’re browsing.

By using a VPN, your data is encrypted so your ISP never knows where you’re browsing or what you’re doing online. A good quality VPN doesn’t keep logs so there’s no way to trace what you’ve been doing or when.

While accessing a public Wi-Fi network is where the biggest dangers are, threats are still viable everywhere. By using a VPN at home, you’re much safer than before and you know you’ve covered all the bases.

Crucially, no one wants their ISP to be selling their data, and using a VPN stops that. Most VPNs are available for a very low price too, meaning there’s hardly anything to lose in using one.

Myth #6: All VPNs offer equal protection

Here’s the kicker. All VPNs are not created equal. Not every VPN will necessarily protect you and some actively compromise your privacy. This is especially true with free VPNs, because if you’re not paying, your data is probably being harvested. A free VPN service usually sells your data. Even worse, one study found that 85% of free VPNs have permissions or functions that could compromise user’s privacy, while 35% of VPNs expose a user’s traffic, and 18% contain potential malware or viruses. Bottom line? Chances are good that, with free VPNs, you’re not protecting your privacy, you’re actually putting it at risk.

It’s far better to opt for a reputed, paid VPN–but beware, three popular VPN services have been hacked in recent years. Paid VPN services are the better choice because, since you are paying customer, they’re not incentivized to share your data and actively compromise your privacy. That said, paid VPN services can still have security flaws and aren’t always upfront with their customers about security breaches that puts their data at risk. Case in point: when NordVPN, which has regularly been rated the best VPN service, was hacked, they only acknowledged the attack after rumors began to circulate that a hack had occurred.

When it comes to selecting VPNs or other tools to protect your privacy, always do a thorough assessment before deciding, researching the different discussions and assessments of a tool so that you can understand its features, limitations and any security flaws. It can be tempting to opt for the free option but a good rule of thumb to remember is that if you’re not paying, your data is probably being harvested. It’s also important to be aware of what the tool _does _protect you from and what its limitations are–no single tool is going to solve all your privacy problems. A reputed VPN will protect your browsing history and other information you submit from outside eyes. It doesn’t protect you if you submit information over an insecure site or download something malicious. And even after you decide on a tool, stay alert. Keep an eye on the news and any conversations about the privacy tools you use so that if a breach _does _happen, you know immediately and can take steps to protect your data.

Role of a VPN in Cybersecurity

While it’s clear that a VPN can’t single-handedly protect your Mac from all forms of malware and cyber threats, it doesn’t imply that it’s useless. Quite the opposite, a VPN plays a vital role in your overall cybersecurity strategy.

A VPN ensures that your data is encrypted and your online activities are anonymized. This is especially important when using unsecured public Wi-Fi networks, where attackers can easily snoop on your data. By masking your IP address, a VPN also makes it harder for advertisers and websites to track your online behavior.

Moreover, as mentioned earlier, some VPNs come with additional security features such as malware blockers, tracking cookie blockers, and protection against suspicious downloads. These can provide an added layer of security, although they should not be relied upon as a primary defense against malware.

A Multi-Layered Approach to Cybersecurity

To effectively protect your Mac from malware and other cyber threats, a multi-layered approach to cybersecurity is necessary. This means combining the use of a VPN with other security tools and good cybersecurity practices.

  • Use a reliable antivirus software: A robust antivirus software will scan your system for malware, quarantine detected threats, and protect your Mac from various kinds of viruses, ransomware, and other threats.
  • Install a firewall: A firewall controls the data that enters and leaves your system. It can help block malicious software from gaining access to your computer.
  • Keep your system and applications updated: Regularly updating your Mac and installed applications ensures that you have the latest security patches, reducing the risk of hackers exploiting known vulnerabilities.
  • Practice good cyber hygiene: This includes not opening suspicious emails or attachments, avoiding sketchy websites, and refraining from downloading files from untrusted sources.

Conclusion

While a VPN offers significant advantages in terms of data privacy and security, it’s not a silver bullet solution for protecting your Mac from malware and cyber threats. It can provide essential encryption and anonymity but falls short of being a comprehensive security solution.

Employing a multi-layered approach to security–combining a VPN, a good antivirus, a robust firewall, regular updates, and good cyber hygiene practices–is the most effective way to protect your Mac from the varied landscape of digital threats.

Hopefully, this article has debunked some common myths and provided you with a clearer understanding of the role and limitations of a VPN in protecting your Mac from malware and cyber threats. In the ever-evolving landscape of digital threats, understanding the tools at your disposal is the first step in fortifying your digital life.

GeeksModo Staff is a team of iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch experts led by Moses Johnson. We're passionate about all things Apple!
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