With surging popularity and definite utility, the Internet has seen a lot of VPNs popping up. These VPNs are different from what they were 20 years ago or so. Commercial VPNs have come a long way, especially when taking customer satisfaction into heed. They compete and offer unique services to attract more potential customers. One such feature is what we call a VPN kill switch. Initially, a handful of providers introduced this feature as a niche to appeal to more privacy-centered users. But now, it has started to become a standard VPN feature as more and more users and providers alike realized its potential. A VPN kill switch is a feature that every decent VPN has. It automatically disconnects you from the internet in the event of your VPN failure. As such, it provides an extra layer of security to your internet browsing. To learn more about VPN kill switches, continue reading.
Overview of the feature
Also known as an internet kill switch, it is an integral part of a VPN security architecture. The sole job of a kill switch is to make sure that your data is safe even in the face of a VPN failure. While it may not sound like a lot, this feature changes the VPN game completely. A kill switch will disconnect you from the internet when a VPN isn’t active. Or you can say with a kill switch enabled, one can’t browse the internet without a VPN.
If and when your VPN connection suddenly drops, even without your knowledge or will, this feature will automatically and instantly cut you off from the internet to prevent any loss of data such as IP leaks until a new tunnel is up and running.
We must confess that it is not a feature for everyone. Like most things, it depends on the user whether they want to employ a kill switch or not. Users who log into a VPN to stream their favorite content will find this more of a nuisance. However, for an activist, journalist, or avid torrent lover, a VPN kill switch is what they want from a VPN.
Due to popular demand, more and more providers have started incorporating VPN kill switches within their services. Although, the best VPNs that employ a kill switch are undoubtedly ExpressVPN, Nord VPN, PIA, CyberGhost, etc. You can get a detailed look at these VPNs in our Review section.
How does a VPN kill switch work?
Imagine a tripwire; a kill switch is a digital tripwire that constantly cheks our internet connection for abnormalities. It’s a given that, for a kill switch to work, one must have a VPN active. While there are a few kill switches that terminate only the router, though it will lead to leaks, reputable providers have a robust VPN kill switch that at times works as a firewall.
A kill switch will monitor your VPN connection. We know that a VPN is based on tunneling. Therefore, a kill switch won’t allow any connection outside this so-called tunnel unless you turn off the VPN manually or the kill switch feature does. It prevents any requests from realizing unless they go through the VPN. When triggered, it will drop your internet connection and block any attempt at internet access. The network lockout persists until a new VPN connection establishes or the old one starts working again.
The following steps take place when a VPN kill switch initiates:
- Monitoring — It will constantly monitor your Internet and VPN connection for any changes in IP address or connection status.
- Detecting — The detection of any change is instant which prevents any leaks.
- Blocking — The feature cuts off your device’s access to the internet.
- Restoring — As soon as you’re back on your VPN servers, the kill switch will restore your Internet connection.
Types of kill switch
There are two main categories of a VPN kill switch:
1. Based on reaction time
We have two kinds of kill switches, which we distinguish based on reaction time. In other words, these VPN kill switches take different measures and react adversely in an event of VPN failure. They are:
- Passive kill switch — More secure and faster. It doesn’t wait for information and immediately ceases connection on discovering IP changes.
- Active kill switch — First relays information to the server and then waits for further instructions.
2. Based on architecture affected
Again, we can conclude that various users have various needs. These kill switches are optimized to affect the whole Internet infrastructure or just a few apps. They are:
- System-level kill switch — Terminates internet across the whole system. Not user-friendly, although much more secure than the option below.
- Application-level kill switch — Simpler than the first one. User-friendly as it closes only a select few apps on VPN termination. It has a higher risk of leaking IP.
When does it activate?
A good one will activate as soon as it detects an anomaly in your VPN connection (server and or IP address). For example:
- If you are disconnected from the Internet.
- You decide to switch VPN servers.
- When you experience unreliable network connections.
- If your computer does an update overnight.
- If you start using a new firewall.
- When someone borrows your device and tries to connect.
Leading causes for network disconnection
There are various reasons for a VPN to disconnect. Starting from the client end, all the way down to servers, Internet connectivity, or even hardware issues. Let’s explore the major causes of a VPN disconnection:
- VPN account problems — Maybe your VPN account itself has some issues.
- Outdated VPN client — Sometimes, a VPN drops due to obsolete software.
- VPN server down — When everything is fine, but the server you’re trying to connect is offline.
- Server overload — One of the most common issues related to a VPN is a server running at maximum capacity.
- Change in VPN server — A VPN connection can drop when you’re trying to change servers.
- Inability to create tunnels — Maybe due to IP packets or proxy issues, the VPN is rendered incapable of maintaining a tunnel between the client and server.
- Unreliable internet connection — A VPN will not be able to run with unreliable internet.
- CPU overload — When the PC running the VPN client faces the issue of running too many apps and may freeze.
- Firewall or Antivirus — Antivirus or firewall could have recognized the VPN as a threat and prevented it from working.
Why use a kill switch?
A kill switch is an added layer of security. The last bastion of defense, you could say. As mentioned, it doesn’t carry the same benefits for everyone. But for those who rely on VPNs to keep their sensitive data secure, the kill switch is a lifesaver, quite literally.
It helps you deal with the unexpected. High-risk individuals like political activists, journalists, and cybersecurity professionals that use VPNs to hide their online activity have a kill switch ready at all times. To tackle the unknown, they can’t afford any data leaks. While a VPN may not be a foolproof and a stand-alone solution to their online conundrum, it surely helps if it comes with a powerful kill switch.
Benefits of a VPN kill switch
- Added security — It adds an extra layer of certainty to an already secure network. It works wonders for privacy enthusiasts. This added security can be a crucial factor in your online safety and stability.
- Peace of mind — With a kill switch in play, the privacy-centric user will have peace of mind. They can work and use the network as they like without worrying about data loss.
- No leaks — It ensures that your client/server doesn’t leak any data like an IP address, thus, preventing a potential security breach.
- All-round protection — It works more like a gatekeeper who won’t allow any traffic to flow in or out of the network without a proper VPN connection in place.
When to use a VPN kill switch?
We would recommend keeping the kill switch active round the clock. However, there are certain cases when it becomes imminent for a user to employ this feature:
When Torrenting and downloading
It shouldn’t be a surprise that although legal if used properly, torrenting is majorly portrayed as an illegal activity. Therefore, you shall always keep the kill switch active if you want to download and upload torrents in peace.
When working with sensitive data
Many individuals can be at risk in case of a VPN failure. On top of that, when they are working on something sensitive, they wouldn’t want it to leak. Thus this feature is well appreciated.
On mobile devices
On mobile, users witness frequent connection drops. As such, a VPN kill switch is the best fit for a mobile device.
When you are deeply concerned about privacy
As mentioned above, VPN isn’t infallible when it comes to privacy but it helps. For a user who is worried about privacy, a kill switch is a godsend.
Who uses a kill switch?
We know that kill switches aren’t crucial for casual users. For some, they can be wonderous, such as:
- Political Activists and journalists — they are people concerned with online privacy. What they do is often subject to risks. As such, a kill switch can safeguard against an unexpected event.
- Those who use P2P — While not explicitly illegal, torrenting comes with certain risks.
- Anyone with classified information — Corporate executives, medical professionals, lawyers, managerial employees, people working from home, social workers, or anyone that fits the bill and connects to the Internet.
Risk of using a VPN without a kill switch
- VPN failure can be potential security breaches — It means in the event of a VPN failure, your ISP (and thus the government in some cases) can see what you’re up to online. They can access your IP address and locate you in real-time.
- Free Wi-Fi is dangerous — As we discussed previously, Wi-Fi hotspots and public connections are insecure and a potential hotbed for malware. If your VPN drops while you’re on an unsecured network, your data will be prime candidate for malicious individuals.
- An IP leak can get you into real trouble — Many do not realize the importance of a public IP address. An IP leak can blow away your virtual/fake IP and reveal your current location for anyone to track. It is more of a problem for an activist, journalist, or a blogger.
While not for every user, a VPN kill switch is an irreplaceable component of your online security if you take your safety and privacy seriously. If you have a VPN provider that allows access to one, you don’t have anything to lose and everything to gain, especially the calmness during eachonline activity.