Debunking myths on RDP and VPN: how do they differ?

Ruth C. | July 31, 2020

Besides the technical jargon involved, RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) represents a relatively simple concept of accessing computers remotely. While different in nature and its capabilities, some regard it as a replacement for a VPN. Is that true? Not exactly. RDP and VPN embark on a quest to solve different problems. While definitions overlap, their distinct features complement each other rather than compete.

Understanding RDP and its purpose

Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) permits users to access Windows operating systems through a unique graphical interface remotely. The devices connect over a network connection and engage in screen sharing from hosts to other devices. Besides enabling this synchronic screen sharing, RDP tools allow the person to manipulate the Windows computer fully. However, there might be restrictions, potentially preventing the user on the other end to operate with admin privileges.

A brief backstory of RDP begins with Microsoft’s decision to introduce a tool, allowing users to take control over another device remotely. The final product is a sophisticated protocol, fueling the built-in Remote Desktop software. However, the features are not foolproof, and researchers report some large gaps in their security shields.

Just recently, RDP hijacking roamed the digital landscape. Crooks exploited the vulnerabilities in the troubleshooting assistant to seemingly resume approved RDP sessions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the numbers of remotely-working employees skyrocketed, hackers also fancied brute force attacks. Most of them aimed at distributing ransomware by gaining admin rights and stripping a device from all security mechanisms. So, attacks exploiting RDP are nothing new, and they have surged since 2020.

Comparing RDP and VPN technologies

RDP and VPN technologies have come a long way since their first introduction. For instance, a VPN concentrator could be an alternative to RDP. However, you should not treat these tools as parallel based on their distinct features. Nevertheless, juggling dozens of abbreviations and understanding each technical detail in IT and networking can be challenging. So, let’s begin with the definitions of both these technologies side-by-side:

  • RDP is a protocol that many employees and regular netizens rely on to access and control computers remotely.
  • VPN is the term for a virtual private network. It elevates users’ rights on private networks to perform the same actions as if they belonged to a public/shared network. However, VPN is a complicated technology. In more cases, you will find descriptions of VPN tools, indicating their purpose to keep users safe and anonymous online.

The first two definitions overlap. When applied, a VPN can implement access control and prevent outsiders from accessing corporate databases or websites. In the case of RDP, the Remote Desktop will also elevate an outsider’s rights, but differently. It allows another person to take full control of another computer or virtual machine. So, while a VPN gives access to restricted files and sites, RDP enables you to use another device with admin privileges.

Use cases of RDP and VPN

For regular netizens:

  • Use RDP to gain access to another computer. Your friends or family members might struggle to fix an issue on their devices. Instead of going in to solve the problem blindly, you can use Remote Desktop.
  • Get a VPN to become invisible online. This tool will prevent marketers, enterprises, social media networks, and other entities from monetizing your data. For instance, you won’t have to deal with extensive amounts of personalized ads.
  • A VPN for accessing geo-restricted content. Many digital services impose strict regulations on who can access their sites. These restrictions work because IP addresses represent users’ approximate locations. With a VPN, you can manipulate your whereabouts and gain access to any service you want.
  • A VPN tool will fight internet censorship for you. You won’t have to follow the strict rules that governments inflict on their citizens.

For corporate entities and organizations:

  • RDP for technical support and issue troubleshooting. IT experts are more productive when they get access to devices. If company departments do not work in the same location, it is essential to employ remote access tools.
  • Use RDP for more custom access points. Some programs or technical capabilities are not that easy to maintain if anyone on the team can access them. Consider remote access tools when only a small circle of employees should get first-hand access.
  • A VPN can protect corporate networks. Protect your staff from hackers by guiding them to install VPN tools on their devices. Also, recommend that they always check whether the VPN connection is turned on.
  • Get a VPN to control access to databases. VPN tools will ensure that only specific users can access certain websites or storage. This access control will prevent external entities from reading confidential policies or other details.

Which is safer: RDP or VPN?

Remote Desktop is relatively safe to use within a private network. However, the tables turn once users expose RDP to the internet. As mentioned above, the cybercriminals are keen to access valuable information remotely. Due to vulnerabilities in RDP itself and improper management of credentials, hackers manage to find flawed access points. Hence, the use of Remote Desktop needs to follow industry-standard security practices and encryption protocols. If not, hackers can step in and intercept vulnerable connections. As a result, they will be able to monitor or resume previously approved sessions.

So, remote access tools are not always up to the challenge of maintaining a secure environment. How can you improve them? By employing top-of-the-line VPN tools that encrypt and encapsulate transmitted data. From this point, a VPN will scramble all incoming and outgoing traffic, making it unusable without decryption. So, a VPN will fill the security gaps that RDP might leave unattended.

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