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.
Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) was initially developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for IPv6, which was required in all standards-compliant implementations of IPv6 before RFC 6434 made it only a recommendation. This standards-based security protocol is also widely used with IPv4 and the Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol. Its design meets most security goals: authentication, integrity, and confidentiality. IPsec uses encryption, encapsulating an IP packet inside an IPsec packet. De-encapsulation happens at the end of the tunnel, where the original IP packet is decrypted and forwarded to its intended destination.
Though PIA doesn’t list its leadership on its website, that information isn’t hard to find. The founder, Andrew Lee, has been interviewed by Ars Technica; the CEO, Ted Kim, is also on the record; and privacy activist and Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge is listed as Head of Privacy on the company’s blog. PIA can also point to court records showing that when approached by law enforcement for detailed records, the company had nothing to provide. PIA boasts a huge network of servers and locations around the world, and though the PIA app isn’t as polished as those of some competitors, it is easy to use. Like our top pick, IVPN, its iOS app also added OpenVPN support in mid-2018. But in our speed tests, PIA was just okay, not great. When we averaged and ranked all of our speed tests, PIA came in fifth, behind our top picks as well as OVPN and ExpressVPN.
While a VPN can aid privacy and anonymity, I wouldn’t recommend fomenting the next great political revolution by relying solely on a VPN. Some security experts argue that a commercial VPN is better than a free proxy such as the TOR network for political activity, but a VPN is only part of the solution. To become an internet phantom (or as close as you can realistically get to one), it takes a lot more than a $7 monthly subscription to a VPN.
Finally, you may want a VPN to spoof your location to download content you shouldn’t have access to, but this too has limits. A VPN used to be the go-to solution to watch U.S. Netflix overseas. That changed in 2016 when Netflix opened up to almost every country on Earth. Since then, the company has invested a lot in detecting and blocking VPN users. Even people using a VPN inside their own country will be blocked by Netflix if detected.
Many companies proudly display “warrant canaries” on their websites. These are digitally signed notices that say something to the effect of “We have never been served a warrant for traffic logs or turned over customer information.” Law enforcement can prohibit a company from discussing an investigation, but in theory, it can’t compel a company to actively lie. So the theory goes that when the warrant canary dies—that is, the notice disappears from the website because it’s no longer truthful—so does privacy. The EFF supports this legal position, though other highly regarded companies and organizations think warrant canaries are helpful only for informing you after the damage has been done. Such notices may provide a nice sense of security, and they are important to some people, but we didn’t consider them essential.
ExpressVPN has a wide range of client software, a dedicated proxy service for streaming media and its own DNS service. But in our 2017 tests, it dropped many connections and its overall performance was in the middle of the pack. It also allows only three devices to be connected simultaneously per account, and it's one of the most expensive services we evaluated.
VPN is an excellent choice in order to obtain the necessary data protection, as well as freedom and anonymity while surfing the Internet. When choosing a VPN provider, be sure to pay attention to some features that will help you find exactly the VPN that you need. For you, we have collected the main factors that need to be taken into account when selecting personal VPN services:
Price: Free TorVPN users are limited to 1GB/mo downloaded before they’re cut off, and Premium accounts start at 5 EUR/mo ($7mo) for 5GB/mo and go up to 30 EUR/mo ($38/mo) for 100GB. Keep in mind they have a no-refunds policy, and that even though you ride the Tor network, they’re a separate entity from the Tor Project. You can read more about their pricing and plans here.
Yet Mullvad is worth a look because it's extremely private. It asks nothing about you when you sign up. Instead, it assigns you a random number that will be your combined username and password. You don't have to provide an email address, and you can pay by mailing cash to the company's headquarters in Sweden. (Mullvad also takes credit cards, PayPal, bitcoin and wire transfers, and offers 30-day money-back guarantees for those.) Unexpectedly, it was pretty versatile at streaming Netflix from overseas — it didn't always get through, but in no country we tried was it always blocked.
In very simple terms, a VPN connects your PC, smartphone, or tablet to another computer (called a server) somewhere on the internet, and allows you to browse the internet using that computer’s internet connection. So if that server is in a different country, it will appear as if you are coming from that country, and you can potentially access things that you couldn’t normally.
If you're using a service to route all your internet traffic through its servers, you have to be able to trust the provider. Established security companies, such as F-Secure, may have only recently come to the VPN market. It's easier to trust companies that have been around a little longer, simply because their reputation is likely to be known. But companies and products can change quickly. Today's slow VPN service that won't let you cancel your subscription could be tomorrow's poster child for excellence.
That said, many VPN providers are based outside the US, which complicates enforcement. Jerome continued: “Users can file complaints in a local jurisdiction, and local data protection laws may have more effective enforcement mechanisms. For example, privacy and confidentiality of communications are fundamental rights in the European Union. Data protection authorities in EU-member states are empowered to handle complaints brought by individuals and then provide users with information about the outcome of any investigation. But it is unclear how effective any of these remedies will be.”
For example, when your computer is connected to a VPN, the computer acts as if it's also on the same network as the VPN. All of your online traffic is transferred over a secure connection to the VPN. The computer will then behave as if it's on that network, allowing you to securely gain access to local network resources. Regardless of your location, you'll be given permission to use the internet as if you were present at the VPN's location. This can be extremely beneficial for individuals using a public Wi-Fi.