In conjunction with information security experts at The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter), we reached out to our finalists with questions about their internal security practices. We asked how they handled internal security access, how they communicated securely with customers, in what ways they collected reports on security bugs, and of course whether their statements on logging policies matched their marketing and privacy policies. We also considered which companies had public-facing leadership or ownership, and which ones openly supported projects and organizations that promoted Internet security and privacy. (For a full breakdown of trust and VPNs, check out the section above.)
When we initially researched and tested VPNs for this guide in early 2018, technical and legal reasons prevented app developers from using the OpenVPN protocol in apps released through Apple’s iOS app store. During 2018, both the technical and licensing hurdles were removed, and VPN providers started adding OpenVPN connections to their iOS apps. We’ve already noted that our top pick, IVPN, has added it, as have ExpressVPN and PIA. In a future update, we’ll specifically test these upgraded iOS apps, but in the meantime the updated IVPN app has worked as promised for several Wirecutter staffers who use it regularly. Because this OpenVPN support makes it much easier for anyone with Apple devices to create a reliably secure VPN connection, we wouldn’t recommend a service without it to anyone with an iPhone or iPad.
Because few VPN companies offer live support, we appreciate when they at least provide easy-to-follow resources on their websites. Detailed setup guides with step-by-step instructions are available for every platform IVPN supports, and it breaks down troubleshooting advice into language that’s easy to understand. ExpressVPN also has clear, helpful support articles, but other services aren’t as straightforward. It’s harder to find the right information on TorGuard’s support site, and its articles aren’t as novice-friendly. If you need to submit a ticket for a specific problem, you can expect a quick response from all the companies we tested—IVPN and TorGuard both responded to us in minutes, and PIA took the longest at one day. ExpressVPN was the only one of our finalists that offered tech support over live chat. (Other companies provide live chat only for sales and signup support.)
When we test VPNs, we use the Ookla speed test tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag's publisher, Ziff Davis.) This test provides metrics for latency, download speeds, and upload speeds. Any one of these can be an important measurement depending on your needs, but we tend to view the download speed as the most important. After all, we live in an age of digital consumption.
VPNs initially are corporate networks ensuring safely encrypted connections between the company server and the employees. These systems give colleagues who are in different departments the possibility of collaborating without physical contact. VPNs are helpful and assist in office maintenance by allowing their employees to work from anywhere in the world or remotely in the comfort of their homes. The application and use of VPN technologies were started by the Chinese who were after getting the around the restrictions of the great firewall.
Price-wise, Norton WiFi Privacy is pretty generous, too. A one-year subscription (for one device only), costs just £19.99 for the first year, and a 5-connection account costs £29.99 per year. However, the price jumps up after the first year, to £39.99 for 1 device and £59.99 for 5 devices. That’s still better than some, mind, but you may want to disable auto renewal, just in case.
Protocol: When you’re researching a VPN, you’ll see terms like SSL/TLS (sometimes referred to as OpenVPN support,) PPTP, IPSec, L2TP, and other VPN types. We asked Samara Lynn, Lead Analyst for Networking and Small Business at PCMag, whether or not a user shopping for a VPN should shop for one over another. “SSL is what is commonly used these days. All of these protocols will provide a secure connection,” she explained, and pointed out that most solutions are invisible to the end-user anyway. Strictly, each protocol has its benefits and drawbacks, and if you’re concerned about this (specifically, PPTP vulnerabilities,) you’re probably already aware of them. Most users don’t need to be concerned about this—corporate users on the other hand, are probably all using IPSec or SSL clients anyway.
We considered native apps for Windows, Mac, and Android to be mandatory because they’re easier to use than open-source or third-party VPN apps like Tunnelblick; that in turn makes it easier to stay secure. For more-advanced users, adding VPN connections to Wi-Fi routers can help secure all connections on a home network without having to manage devices individually.
In 2011, a LulzSec hacker was arrested for his involvement with an attack on the Sony Pictures website. Cody Kretsinger used HideMyAss VPN to conceal his identity, but the company complied with a court order to hand over evidence that led to his arrest. This occurred in spite of the company’s pledge not to keep any logs of user activity. HMA says it does not log the contents of its users’ internet traffic, but it does keep detailed metadata logs that include users’ real IP addresses, which was enough to charge Kretsinger with a crime.
We like that the company offers a connection kill switch feature and, for those who need it, there's an option to get a dedicated IP address. VyprVPN is a standout in their effort to provide privacy, and thwart censorship. When China began its program of deep packet VPN inspection, Golden Frog's VyperVPN service added scrambled OpenVPN packets to keep the traffic flowing.