When choosing your VPN, do your research and mind the legal aspects. Countries like Germany, France or Japan are cracking down on copyright infringement, while the members of the 14 Eyes treaty have draconian data retention laws and extensive surveillance. So, if you’re looking to maximize your privacy, you might want to avoid connecting to servers in those countries.
Private Internet Access' client interfaces aren't as flashy or cutesy as some other services' software, but they're clear and simple enough for newbies to start right away. A toggle switch reveals all the settings a VPN expert would ever want to play with. You can also skip Private Internet Access' software and connect directly to the servers, or use a third-party OpenVPN client.
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.
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.)
One of the most important factors when you’re choosing a VPN provider is also the hardest to quantify: trust. All your Internet activity will flow through this company’s servers, so you have to trust that company more than the network you’re trying to secure, be it a local coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, your campus Internet connection, your corporate IT network, or your home ISP. In all our research, we came across a lot of gray areas when it came to trusting a VPN, and only two hard rules: Know who you’re trusting, and remember that security isn’t free.
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The second thing that happens is that the web application you're talking to does not get to see your IP address. Instead, it sees an IP address owned by the VPN service. This allows you some level of anonymous networking. This IP spoofing is also used to trick applications into thinking you're located in a different region, or even a different country than you really are located in. There are reasons (both illegal and legal) to do this. We'll discuss that in a bit.
Whereas most providers say they log nothing, that’s not always the case. Some record very little data like the day you subscribed, the amount of data you’ve consumed, and delete those logs when you end the session. Other providers log your IP address, the servers you used, and store those logs. If they’re based in the US, UK or any other country with data retention laws, they can be compelled to hand over that data to law enforcement.