As part of our research, we also make sure to find out where the company is based and under what legal framework it operates. Some countries don't have data-retention laws, making it easier to keep a promise of "We don't keep any logs." It's also useful to know under what circumstances a VPN company will hand over information to law enforcement and what information it would have to provide if that should happen.
If HTTP browsing is a postcard that anyone can read as it travels along, HTTPS (HTTP Secure) is a sealed letter that gives up only where it’s going. For example, before Wirecutter implemented HTTPS, your traffic could reveal the exact page you visited (such as https://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-portable-vaporizer/) and its content to the owner of the Wi-Fi network, your network administrator, or your ISP. But if you visit that same page today—our website now uses HTTPS—those parties would see only the domain (https://thewirecutter.com). The downside is that HTTPS has to be implemented by the website operator. Sites that deal with banking or shopping have been using these types of secure connections for a long time to protect financial data, and in the past few years, many major news and information sites, including Wirecutter and the site of our parent company, The New York Times, have implemented it as well.
The first step to security is usually a firewall between the client and the host server, requiring the remote user to establish an authenticated connection with the firewall. Encryption is also an important component of a secure VPN. Encryption works by having all data sent from one computer encrypted in such a way that only the computer it is sending to can decrypt the data.
OVPN was regularly the fastest VPN in our tests regardless of the time of week or location. We also liked the app’s clean design and its simple and well-labeled settings pane. But OVPN is a small startup with a limited server network: At this writing, the company has servers in just seven countries, none in Asia. That makes it less versatile for finding less congested routes or geoshifting. OVPN also hasn’t released an Android app yet, so even non-iOS device owners will have to resort to the clunky, third-party OpenVPN Connect app on their phones. When we reached out for details about the company’s operational security, founder and CEO David Wibergh was open to questions and gave us answers that led us to believe that the company acted in the best interest of its customers’ privacy and security. He noted that after an uptick in data requests from local authorities in Sweden—all of which OVPN responded to by explaining that it lacked any pertinent data—the company published a blog post to detail just how little information it keeps.
We've knocked CyberGhost down a peg from last year's standings because the service's network performance wasn't as great this time around in our tests. Yet it has a feature-loaded, user-friendly interface, with convenient buttons in the Windows client software for streaming media, torrenting files, protecting your Wi-Fi transmissions and evading censorship. (The Mac desktop software has fewer features.)
When purchasing VPN service from a provider, consider the kind of security you want. If you want to use a VPN in order to send documents, emails, or browse the web more securely, then you’ll want to sign up with a host that offers an encryption method such as SSL (also called TLS) or IPsec. SSL is the most widely used form of security encryption. Encryption is a method of obscuring data from those who should not see it. Also, try to pick a host which uses OpenVPN rather than “point-to-point tunneling protocol” (PPTP) for encryption. PPTP has had several security vulnerabilities in recent years; whereas OpenVPN is commonly considered the more secure method of encryption.
One basic test for a VPN service is to check how long a VPN client takes to connect to a VPN server and get online. For our 2018 reviews, we installed each vendor's VPN client software on an HP EliteBook x360 1020 G2 laptop running Windows 10, an iPad mini and a Samsung Galaxy S8 Android phone. (In 2017, we used a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga notebook, an Apple MacBook Air, a Samsung Galaxy S6 phone and the iPad mini.) We used each device with each VPN service we tested.
This is important to understand. Consumer VPN services protect your transmission from your location to their location, not from your location all the way to the destination application you're using. If you think about it, this makes sense: A consumer VPN service is operated by a completely different company than, for example, Facebook or your bank.
While it hides your IP address, a VPN is not a true anonymization service. For that, you'll want to access the Tor network, which will almost certainly slow down your connection. While a VPN tunnels your web traffic to a VPN server, Tor bounces around your traffic through several volunteer nodes making it much, much harder to track. Using Tor also grants access to hidden Dark Web sites, which a VPN simply cannot do. That said, some services, such as NordVPN, offer Tor access on specific servers.
Buffered VPN doesn't disclose much about the size of its network, but the 30-day money back guarantee means that you can take their service for a test drive and really get a feel for how well it performs for you. The company lost a few points from us because they do keep some connection information. They gained points for their client support, unlimited bandwidth, and generous number of simultaneous sessions allowed.