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VPN kill switch: What is it and how does it work?

June 16, 2021

If you’re looking for greater online anonymity and privacy, you can use a virtual private network to mask your internet protocol address and encrypt the data you send and receive. A VPN creates a private network from a public internet connection by acting like a secure, encrypted tunnel for your data. But what happens if the connection with your VPN provider suddenly drops?

If you suddenly lose your VPN connection, your IP address and online activity will likely become visible to others. You don’t want this to happen, because having access to sensitive data like your personal information could help cybercriminals commit crimes like identity theft and other online frauds.

This creates a dilemma, because VPNs are supposed to give you greater security, not less. A VPN feature known as a kill switch, offered by some VPN providers, can help. If you lose your VPN connection, a kill switch can automatically disconnect your device from your internet connection to ensure your privacy remains intact until your VPN connection is restored. A kill switch prevents your IP address, location, or identity from accidentally being exposed.

Here’s a look at what a VPN kill switch is, how it works, types of VPN kill switches, causes of VPN disconnections, and how a VPN kill switch can help protect you.

How does a VPN kill switch work?

To understand how a kill switch works, it helps to understand how VPNs work. VPNs create a data tunnel between your local network and a remote server at another location. When your device is connected to a VPN, your web activity will be associated with your VPN server’s IP address instead of your real IP address. This makes it appear to others as if you’re in another location — and hides your real location.

A VPN hides not only hides your IP address and location, but also your browsing history and web activity — which can include sensitive data like your passcodes and bank account information. VPNs make this information unreadable by using encryption to scramble the data you send and receive over a Wi-Fi network.

Here’s the problem. If you lose your connection to the internet — and therefore your VPN server — then your laptop, smartphone or other device is likely to default back to the public IP address provided by your home Internet Service Provider. This means that your online activity and browsing history, along with your IP address and location, can suddenly be visible to and tracked by others.

A VPN kill switch feature adds security by making sure this sudden and unexpected visibility doesn’t happen. How? By immediately disconnecting you from the internet if there’s any change in your IP address or when you lose VPN service.

Keep in mind that not all VPN providers offer this kill switch feature, so this is something to consider when choosing the VPN provider that’s right for you.

Also keep in mind that some VPN providers might offer preactivated kill switches, but many kill switches are not automatically activated. If that’s the case, you’ll need to manually turn on the kill switch by activating it in your VPN client.

Types of VPN kill switches

Not all VPNs have kill switches, and there are also different types of VPN kill switches, such as system-level kill switches and application-level kill switches.

What’s the difference? A system-level kill switch renders a complete shutdown of all network activity. An application-level kill switch, however, is more customized. It allows you to select which apps or web applications you want to kill before you reconnect to your VPN.

6 causes of VPN disconnections

VPN disconnections don’t only happen when you drive into a tunnel and lose your Wi-Fi signal. Here are six common causes of VPN disconnections that you should be aware of.

  1. Firewall or router settings. If you find yourself losing your connection frequently, it could be due to the settings for your firewall, antivirus or spyware program. If you find this happening, try disabling them. If that helps, then you’ll need to add your VPN to your firewall’s list of exceptions.
  2. Type of VPN protocol. A VPN protocol known as the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) may be more reliable and stable than the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). If using UDP, try switching the protocol on your network.
  3. Blocked or weak Wi-Fi signal. A weak Wi-Fi signal may cause your connection to drop. If you’ve lost your internet connection, you won’t be connected to your VPN provider.
  4. Network congestion. Heavy internet traffic could lead to congestion, causing your connection to be lost.
  5. ISP interference. Interference with your internet service provider could result in disconnections with your VPN server.
  6. VPN client server issues. While VPN providers are often very secure with numerous servers all over the world, something could happen to damage a server. If your VPN provider has server issues, then you’ll lose your connection.

Why Is a VPN kill switch important?

VPN kill switches are important because they protect your privacy when the unexpected happens, and at some point it usually does.

If your VPN connection drops, your computer or device will likely default back to the IP address of your ISP. You may not even realize it. You don’t want this to happen, because you’ll no longer have the privacy and anonymity provided by a VPN.

Whether you’re managing sensitive data from your bank account or your employer, your online privacy is important.

The VPN kill switch gives you peace of mind because it ensures your internet connection will automatically drop if you lose your VPN connection. Consider the alternative – taking the risk that others can see your sensitive data. That’s why it’s smart to have a VPN kill switch to help protect your privacy and security.

The freedom to connect more securely to Wi-Fi anywhere

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Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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