In the most recent round of testing, we've also looked at how many virtual servers a given VPN company uses. A virtual server is just what it sounds like—a software-defined server running on server hardware that might have several virtual servers onboard. The thing about virtual servers is that they can be configured to appear as if they are in one country when they are actually being hosted somewhere else. That's an issue if you're especially concerned about where you web traffic is traveling. It's a bit worrisome to choose one location and discover you're actually connected somewhere else entirely.
ProtonVPN is one of the newest VPN services, and it boasts some star-studded founding members. The company was founded at CERN, the birthplace of the internet, and grew out of the ProtonMAIL service that’s been protecting the email of activists and journalists for years. The service acts as a Swiss company and is thus free from the laws of the U.S. and the European Union. It’s also not a member of the “fourteen eyes surveillance network,” and user traffic isn’t logged and passes through privacy-friendly countries, so you needn’t worry about your true IP address being revealed.
Another reason you might choose to use a VPN is if you have something to hide. This isn't just about folks doing things they shouldn't do. Sometimes people really need to hide information. Take, for example, the person who is worried he or she might be discriminated against by an employer because of a sexual preference or medical condition. Another example is a person who needs to go online but is concerned about revealing location information to a person in their life who might be a threat.
Everything you do on the Internet has to pass through your own ISP before reaching the destination. So, when you request Google, for example, the information is sent, unencrypted, to your ISP and then passes through some other channels before reaching the server that holds Google’s website. Basically, VPN services privatize information that can be read by ISPs or any other agency that inspects your traffic.
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.
This could be bad. I'm not terribly concerned if Comcast discovers my secret passion for muscle cars and I get more ads for car customizing kits. It might be annoying, but I'm not doing anything I really want to hide. Where the problem could occur is if ISPs start inserting their own ads in place of ads by, say, ZDNet. That could cut off the revenue that keeps websites alive, and that could have very serious repercussions.
VPNs provide a way for people to get around internet roadblocks and censors, stream or download without worry, protect themselves from hackers, and keep their internet usage mostly private from third parties. They'll especially come in handy if providers like Comcast do decide to stop playing nice with Netflix, or if you're in a country where American Netflix is blocked.