2023, November 09
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Security
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6 min read
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Matt S.

What Is VPN Split Tunneling?

Dive deep into VPN split tunneling - understand its workings, benefits, and how it can revolutionize your online security and efficiency.

Have you ever wondered how to optimize your internet security while maintaining high-speed access to local services? The answer might lie in a technology known as VPN split tunneling. But what is it exactly, and how does it work? This concept, though relatively modern, has quickly become a crucial part of savvy internet usage. Here, we will explore its origins, how it functions, and why it could be a game-changer for your online experience.

The Basics: Understanding VPNs

Before diving into split tunneling, let’s first understand VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). A VPN creates a secure, encrypted tunnel for your data to travel through the internet, protecting your privacy and masking your IP address. It's like having a private passage through the public chaos of the internet. We've wrote an article if VPNs are legal to use - if you are still curious - read it here.
Split tunneling is an advanced VPN feature that allows you to route some of your device or application traffic through the encrypted VPN tunnel while other devices or applications access the internet directly. Imagine it as a traffic system where you can choose which cars (data packets) go through a private tunnel (VPN) and which travel on the open roads (regular internet).
Here's a great illustration that shows the basic explanation of VPN Split Tunneling (Source: VeePN).

How Does VPN Split Tunneling Work?

At its core, VPN split tunneling is about making routing decisions. Your device or the VPN client software decides which traffic to send through the VPN and which to send directly to the internet. This decision is based on certain criteria like specific apps, destination IP addresses, or the type of network traffic.
There are different ways to implement split tunneling:
  • By Application
    : Some VPNs allow you to select specific applications whose traffic you want to route through the VPN. Other applications will use the regular, unencrypted internet connection. For example, Surfshark uses a VPN split tunneling called Bypasser that allows you to choose which data to protect (Learn more here).
  • By Destination
    : This method involves routing traffic based on the destination IP address. Traffic to certain addresses (like your company's servers) goes through the VPN, while other traffic (like your local news website) goes directly to the internet.
  • Inverse Split Tunneling
    : Inverse split tunneling does the opposite. Instead of specifying what goes through the VPN, you specify what doesn’t. Everything else by default goes through the VPN.
Even though it looks hard, let's look at the practical examples so it makes a complete sense.
Imagine you’re working from home. You might route traffic to your company’s servers through the VPN for secure access, while your personal web browsing or streaming services go through the regular internet to maintain speed and local access. Or on a smartphone, you might route only email or business apps through the VPN, keeping social media and other apps on the regular connection for better performance and lower data usage.

Benefits of VPN Split Tunneling

Now when we know how the VPN split tunneling works, let's look into benefits of running this method on your laptop or mobile phone.

Enhanced Speed and Performance

One of the most significant advantages of split tunneling is improved internet speed. By routing only necessary traffic through the VPN, you reduce bandwidth consumption on the VPN server, which can lead to faster internet speeds for both VPN and non-VPN activities.

Balancing Security and Accessibility

Split tunneling offers a balance between security and accessibility. Sensitive activities can be protected under the VPN, while local services like banking or regional streaming can remain accessible without the VPN’s interference. Also, there are options where a VPS is a better choice for you in general (you can read about it here).

Customized User Experience

Each user can tailor their internet experience to their needs. For instance, a remote worker might use a VPN for accessing their company's network but prefer their personal browsing to remain outside the VPN.

Risks of VPN Split Tunneling

Without being naive, that the VPNs only have advantages, let's delve into some risks and considerations that VPN split tunneling can bring into account. It is crucial to have a full picture to make an informed decision if you decide to use it.

Security Vulnerabilities

It is pretty obvious, that juggling between VPN and normal internet connection is a risk. That is true. The primary risk in split tunneling is that the traffic bypassing the VPN lacks encryption. This makes it potentially vulnerable to interception, eavesdropping, and cyber attacks, especially when connected to unsecured public Wi-Fi networks.
In addition to that, there’s a risk of sensitive data leakage if applications not routed through the VPN are compromised. This is particularly concerning for businesses where employees might inadvertently expose company data.
It is also a pretty complex process and incorrect configurations might lead to security loopholes where sensitive traffic is not adequately protected. Maintaining a split tunneling setup, especially in a corporate environment, requires ongoing monitoring and updates to ensure that the right traffic is being routed correctly.
And as a cherry on top, in most cases (and nn an organizational context) split tunneling might enable employees to bypass network restrictions and access prohibited websites or services, potentially leading to security risks or policy violations. So even if you're doing smart things by optimising your connections and internet speeds, you might end up in trouble from your employer.

Conclusion

VPN split tunneling stands out as a compelling feature in the realm of internet security and efficiency. By allowing users to selectively route their internet traffic – either through the encrypted safety of a VPN or directly to the internet – it offers a blend of security, speed, and user flexibility. This technology, especially beneficial in scenarios like remote working, provides a tailored internet experience that aligns with individual needs and organizational requirements.
VPN split tunneling is a powerful tool that, when used judiciously, can enhance both security and performance. However, it demands a thoughtful approach, balancing its advantages with the inherent risks. Organizations and individuals must carefully evaluate their specific needs, implement strong security measures, and commit to regular monitoring and user education to make the most out of this technology.
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