VPN browser extensions, add-ons, or plug-ins are actually not virtual private networks. A virtual private network client provides another network with its own IP address for a device. What a “VPN” browser extension does is it redirects data requests through a proxy-server that has an IP address.
Instead of the device communicating directly with a server, it passes the communication through a proxy server first. The proxy server would then pass this on to the intended server. The server would consider the proxy server as the source and not the device of origin. Essentially, it masks the IP address of the device creating the address with the proxy server’s address. This makes it useful for accessing geo-blocked or network blocked websites.
One might think that a VPN browser extension is as good as a desktop VPN client. This is not the case. A VPN browser extension does not encrypt the data passing through its channels. Those with the capability can still acquire sensitive information from it. Furthermore, the proxy server can log user and traffic information and, if a hacker can access the server, they can acquire it for their purposes.
Although a proxy server provides limited privacy, internet users can still benefit from them. As mentioned, using a proxy will let those in restricted countries geo-blocked or network blocked websites. Networks would see the local user accessing the proxy server and not the restricted IP address. As for websites, they would only see the proxy server accessing their data.
Extensions have little to no effect on connection speeds since it acts as a proxy and there is no encryption protocol involved. However, connection speeds can increasingly become slower with more proxy connections involved.
Paid browser VPN extensions have a significantly lower price compared to paid VPN applications. Users would not have to pay for a more expensive service like a VPN if they do not want their data encrypted.
These browser-based VPN applications rarely encrypt data sent and received by the browser. These can only mask the IP address and the device location. Since the users often access sites that require logging-in, the data packets could contain login information, usernames, and passwords in unencrypted form.
If the browser extension provides data encryption, it only applies to data coming from the browser. Applications, in the open or in the background, accessing the internet can still have their data packets intercepted and accessed.
Furthermore, there are browser VPN extensions that record and sell user IP address, connection, and traffic logs. The user would not even know or need to provide consent for them to sell their information. These extensions are usually those offered free in the app stores of various browsers.
Aside from these, VPN applications require its users to log-in. The provider can use this information to track their personal details and IP address. If the provider does not have the proper measures, hackers can steal the data and acquire the database of their users.
The existence of these risks does not imply that no one should use browser VPN extensions. Individuals who simply want to bypass geo-block restrictions can do so with no risk. Users under this category include media streaming subscribers accessing country-exclusive media libraries, digital nomads accessing foreign restricted content, and professionals who access geo-blocked resources.
Furthermore, if a user’s device does not access public or vulnerable Wi-Fi connections, a VPN browser extension can provide adequate security and privacy online. The extension will hide user’s IP address and browser traffic. It provides a more affordable solution for securing online activity and data. Internet users that might go this approach are those who only intend to do their online banking, and online transaction through a desktop at home.
Trusted VPN providers offer VPN browser extensions alongside their main VPN service. These are usually priced lower since it has less security and privacy features.
As tempting it might be to use free VPN extensions, it is best to stay away from these applications due to their history of selling data to third-party marketers or hackers. Furthermore, unlike free extensions, paid extensions encrypt browser data packets and disclose their data logging practices.