You Really Should Be Using a VPN and an Antivirus. Here’s Why

A VPN and an antivirus serve two different purposes, but use both if you want more complete online protection.

Attila Tomaschek
Attila is a Staff Writer for CNET, covering software, apps and services with a focus on virtual private networks. He is an advocate for digital privacy and has been quoted in online publications like Computer Weekly, The Guardian, BBC News, HuffPost, Wired and TechRepublic. When not tapping away on his laptop, Attila enjoys spending time with his family, reading and collecting guitars.
Expertise Attila has nearly a decade's worth of experience with VPNs and has been covering them for CNET since 2021. As CNET's VPN expert, Attila rigorously tests VPNs and offers readers advice on how they can use the technology to protect their privacy online.
Attila Tomaschek
7 min read

Both a virtual private network and an antivirus program can help protect your digital life, but each one serves a completely different purpose. A VPN keeps your internet activity private, whereas antivirus software helps keep your connected devices secure from outside threats like viruses and other malware. VPNs focus on privacy while antivirus software concentrates on security.

The internet offers immense opportunities for learning, collaborating, creating and entertainment. But at the same time, it’s full of risks and bad actors who are after your sensitive personal information. One click on the wrong website or file can put your data in the hands of a criminal, and network administrators may be selling your data to third parties. Even your own ISP is stockpiling your personal data and browsing history to feed you ads online. With threats like these, it’s dangerous to go alone -- a VPN and antivirus can help you along the way.  

What is a VPN?

A VPN is software that encrypts your internet traffic while routing your data through an encrypted tunnel to a secure server in another location. In the process, the VPN changes your IP address to the address of the VPN server you’re connected through (which makes websites think you’re in a different geographical area, like a different state or even country). This helps boost your online privacy by rendering your internet traffic indecipherable to your ISP, government, hackers or network administrators, while hiding your true IP address from the websites you visit.

Be aware that when you use a VPN, it’s now the VPN rather than your ISP that can technically monitor, or log, your traffic -- so it’s vital that you use a trustworthy VPN. CNET’s recommended VPN services all promise never to keep any logs of their users’ online activity. Even though it’s impossible to verify zero-log claims with 100% certainty, a reputable VPN will have its no-logs policy independently audited or even tested in the wild, which can help build trust in the VPN that it’s truly not keeping track of what you’re doing online while connected to its servers. 

What are the benefits of a VPN?

A VPN can mask your IP address and keep your activity hidden from online snoops, but in doing so it gives you abilities beyond beefed-up privacy. 

A VPN can help you bypass firewalls and access the open internet if you live in a region with heavy internet censorship or you’re a student blocked from accessing certain sites on school Wi-Fi. Similarly, because a VPN changes your IP address (and therefore your visible location), many people use VPNs to access geographically restricted content from around the world. A VPN can help you stream your home Netflix library while you’re abroad or access tons of other content unavailable in your location. If your ISP is throttling your internet connection, you can even use a VPN to improve your speeds (but keep in mind that a VPN will generally slow your internet speeds).

You can use a VPN to hide your internet browsing activity from your ISP and prevent it from selling your information and feeding you ads. A VPN can help you communicate freely online even if you have critical privacy needs -- which is especially important for people like activists, whistleblowers, journalists and lawyers who may be in regions where key communication tools like Signal, WhatsApp, Instagram and X are restricted or banned. A VPN can also help keep you safe online while traveling, by protecting your privacy on unsecured Wi-Fi networks. 

While the risks of connecting to public Wi-Fi are not quite as severe anymore because most websites use HTTPS to encrypt browser traffic, network admins can still log identifiable data like your IP address, your device’s MAC address, along with other information like the timestamps associated with your online activity and the websites you visit (but not the specific pages or the information you enter into fields on those pages). Also, HTTPS only encrypts browser traffic, so any unencrypted traffic from other apps you may be using may be monitored. A VPN encrypts all of the traffic on your entire device and masks your true IP address, effectively filling in the gaps where HTTPS falls short.

What can't a VPN do?

VPNs can do a lot of things, but there are several misconceptions about the full scope of what they can accomplish -- many of which have been initiated by VPN companies’ marketing. One of the biggest misconceptions about VPNs is that they make you totally anonymous online. Total anonymity online is a fantasy -- your digital footprint is virtually impossible to erase, even if you use a VPN. 

Many of the best VPNs include various flavors of “threat protection” with their services that can help offer basic safeguards against things like malware and phishing (by blocking URLs that may be malicious). But a VPN won’t be able to stop malware from infecting your computer once you’ve downloaded it or stop you from exposing personal information in a phishing scam.

A VPN is an excellent tool for masking your IP address and concealing your internet traffic from online snoops, but don’t believe anyone who claims it to be an all-encompassing solution for all of your online privacy and security needs.

What is antivirus?

Antivirus software scans your device for known viruses and malware. Your antivirus software can detect and block malware from infecting your computer, or delete it if it’s already on your computer. You can typically either run a manual scan of your entire system or specific file, or you can schedule automatic scans and let the antivirus get to work for you on its own. A good antivirus program will also update itself automatically to stay on top of the latest threats. 

If you’re not careful, you can easily download malware to your computer by clicking on a malicious link or saving a malicious attachment -- in a phishing email, for example. Once the malware has infected your computer, a threat actor can do any number of things, including taking over control of your computer, spying on your computer activity, logging your keystrokes, stealing your personal data, locking your computer and demanding a ransom or even erasing everything on your system. Using an antivirus can mitigate these threats. 

What are the benefits of an antivirus program?

An antivirus application can keep your computer safe from viruses and other malware, thereby potentially guarding against fraud and identity theft by keeping your sensitive data out of the hands of online criminals. While it’s not foolproof, an antivirus program can warn you if you’re visiting a site or clicking a link that may be malicious. Some antivirus solutions can even scan the dark web and identify whether your email address has been compromised (and if confirmed, you should change your password and enable two-factor authentication). An antivirus app can even keep annoying pop-up ads from interrupting your browsing experience. A good antivirus suite will even be able to keep your external hard drives safe from malware. As a result of its blocking, detecting and cleaning functionality, antivirus software can keep your computer running smoothly.   

What can't an antivirus do?

Antivirus software is a security tool -- so while it’s great for keeping your computer protected from viruses and other malware, it can’t keep your internet activity private. That means that your antivirus program won’t be able to prevent your ISP from selling your data to advertisers. Although an antivirus app may be able to warn you if you happen to stumble onto a phishing site, it might not be able to catch every phishing attempt and it won’t be able to stop you from sharing your information on a malicious site. It also won’t be able to prevent a malicious site from capturing your true IP address like a VPN can. 

VPN vs. Antivirus: Do you need both?

A VPN and antivirus software are both good tools to use -- but because they protect you in different ways, each one is an incomplete solution if you’re looking for comprehensive online privacy and security. If you want complete protection, I recommend having both a VPN and an antivirus program in your arsenal. That way, you can keep your internet activity private using a VPN and protect your devices from viruses and other malware with an antivirus solution at the same time -- essentially plugging the gaps where each solution is limited in its abilities. Some VPNs, like Surfshark, offer packages that include antivirus, and many antivirus solutions include a VPN. So you have the option to bundle these services with a single subscription. 

To round out your suite of online protection tools, I also recommend getting a password manager, secure cloud storage and even a secure email service. With all of these tools at your disposal, you’ll be well on your way to fortifying your overall online privacy and security.     

Ultimately, it’s important to practice proper cyber hygiene in order to keep your data safe and various cyberthreats at bay: 

  • Be careful not to open attachments or click on links in any suspicious-looking unsolicited email messages. 
  • Use a VPN to encrypt your online traffic and maintain your privacy when using the internet. 
  • Use strong passwords and never reuse the same password across multiple online accounts. 
  • Don’t click on sketchy-looking pop-up ads.
  • Enable two-factor authentication whenever possible.
  • Keep your software updated to ensure the latest security patches are in place.
  • Keep your data backed up.

While VPNs and antivirus software are excellent tools and can be tremendous assets for your online privacy and security, they’re not 100% failsafe and can’t cover every threat posed online. In addition to leveraging tools like VPN and antivirus, you’ll need to stay vigilant to most effectively protect yourself.