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What Is DNS & Why Does It Matter?

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Most of us use the internet without really thinking about what’s going on behind the scenes. Thousands of emails, messages, photos and videos are sent across long stretches of Fibre Optic cable with little thought for where they’re going.

You may not realise it, but the Domain Name System (DNS) is an integral part of the internet and is key to everything you do online arriving at its correct destination. From important emails to messing around on your mobile, none of it would be possible without DNS.

 What is DNS? 

Sending data across the internet involves transmitting information between multiple nodes and this needs to be organised so that things don’t get lost. The DNS is commonly referred to as the phonebook of the internet. And like a phonebook, it is used to associate long, complicated numbers with names that are far simpler to remember.  

How does DNS work?

The DNS allows internet users to interact with the digital world using domain names rather than lengthy IP addresses, and in doing so makes it far more user-friendly.

Every device on the internet has its own IP address – a sequence of outwardly random digits truncated by dots, e.g. 123.45.678 – which works in the same way as a postal address. This unique identifier makes it easier to find the specific device that is being contacted and ensure that data is delivered to the correct location.

When you type the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) of a website into the address bar on your browser, the DNS will translate the human-friendly URL into an IP address, ensuring that the correct web page is sent back to your device.

Does the DNS pose a risk to your data? 

Though DNS is incredibly efficient and can resolve IP address queries in a matter of milliseconds, it can introduce vulnerabilities to otherwise secure connections. 

VPNs, or virtual private networks, work by tunnelling your data through privately-owned, anonymous DNS servers. These are different to the DNS servers supplied by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) as they prevent various entities from eavesdropping on your online activity and monitoring which websites you access, which is useful if you want to avoid targeted ads or surf the web anonymously. 

Sadly, sometimes your device can fail to recognise that you’ve installed a VPN and send your DNS request to a server provided by your ISP. This is called a DNS leak and can result in your online activity being surveilled.

How can you check if you’re experiencing a DNS leak?

If you’re using a VPN service and worried about privacy, there are steps that you can take to make sure you’re still connected to your VPN and aren’t leaking data to your internet service provider. One of the simplest ways is to use a DNS leak checker.

A DNS leak checker works by ascertaining the IP address of the server (or servers) you’re using to connect to the internet. Each checker provides different information, with some stating flat out whether your DNS server can be used to track your website history.

Many leak checkers merely display the IP address of your DNS server, so it’s important in these instances to cross-check this with the IP address of the server on your VPN. That way you can determine whether or not you’re falling foul of a DNS leak. 

How can I resolve a DNS leak? 

Protecting your connection is simply a matter of being proactive. There are several things that you can do to prevent a DNS leak:

  • Subscribe to a VPN service with a kill switch – these sever your internet connection the moment your virtual private network goes down, preventing you from unwittingly sending information across an unsecured network and making you aware of any connection issues straight away
  • Installing a firewall that allows you to configure your connection so that only traffic from your VPN is allowed can also be effective
  • Enforce a good DNS service by selecting the TCPIP4 options in your network adapters’ properties, or by setting OpenDNS. This can ensure that the DNS servers provided by your ISP will never be used, even in the case of your VPN connection failing

Using the internet today is so simple and intuitive that it’s easy to forget that anything could be further from the truth: the internet is a complex skein of cables, servers and systems designed to work together to compute trillions of queries in the blink of an eye.

Sending information across such a complex network provides ISPs and cybercriminals countless opportunities to intercept your activity, so taking the initiative to secure your data using privacy tools like a VPN is sensible.

Even the best VPN can’t necessarily avoid weaknesses like DNS leaks at all times, so it’s always wise to pair one with other tools. Using a DNS leak checker, or even an IP checker, allows you to see where you’re sending your data from and determine whether your VPN connection is safe.

Taking these steps will mean that even those of you who have subscribed to a VPN or taken other precautions to secure your data will be protected in the event of an accidental data leak.

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