Since we last tested VPNs, we've given special attention to the privacy practices of VPN companies and not just the technology they provide. In our testing, we read through the privacy policies and discuss company practices with VPN service representatives. What we look for is a commitment to protect user information, and to take a hands-off approach to gathering user data.
Ideally, every VPN service provider would subject itself to independent audits to verify that it logs and operates as it claims. Right now, audits aren’t common practice in the VPN industry, though there’s a push to change that. Joseph Jerome, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told us about that group’s efforts to bring transparency to the VPN industry: “We would like to see security audits released publicly so security researchers can review them and attest to their veracity, as well as learn from the issues being identified.” The few companies we found that currently performed these types of audits had other dismissal-worthy failings, despite their valiant efforts toward transparency. And while such reports may increase your confidence when you’re shopping, there’s no guarantee that an audit makes a VPN service trustworthy: In other industries, conflicts of interest have led auditors and rating agencies (PDF) to miss or ignore major problems.
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.
Identity theft occurs when thieves steal your personal information and use it to commit crimes in your name — like taking over or opening new accounts, filing tax returns in your name, or renting or buying property. A VPN can help protect against identity theft by helping protect your data. It creates an encrypted tunnel for the data you send and receive that’s out of reach of cyberthieves.
To verify that each service effectively hid our true IP address, we looked at a geolocation tool, DNS leaks, and IPv6 leaks. When connected to each service’s UK servers, we noted whether we could watch videos on BBC iPlayer, and using US servers we noted whether we could stream Netflix. We also visited the sites of Target, Yelp, Cloudflare, and Akamai to check whether our VPN IP addresses prevented us from accessing common sites that sometimes blacklist suspicious IP addresses.
The TorGuard Windows client was easy to install and made quick work of connecting to a VPN server, including the ability to choose a server location prior to connecting. The internet speed on our test system dropped from our usual 125 Mb/s download to 53 Mb/s, and our upload ran at 17 Mb/s compared to our usual 20 Mb/s. That’s not the best performance in our testing, but all internet services that we tested worked without a hitch, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Some VPNs offer great service or pricing but little to no insight into who exactly is handling them. We considered feedback from security experts, including the information security team at The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter), about whether you could trust even the most appealing VPN if the company wasn’t willing to disclose who stood behind it. After careful consideration, we decided we’d rather give up other positives—like faster speeds or extra convenience features—if it meant knowing who led or owned the company providing our connections. Given the explosion of companies offering VPN services and the trivial nature of setting one up as a scam, having a public-facing leadership team—especially one with a long history of actively fighting for online privacy and security—is the most concrete way a company can build trust.
A VPN client on a remote user's computer or mobile device connects to a VPN gateway on the organization's network. The gateway typically requires the device to authenticate its identity. Then, it creates a network link back to the device that allows it to reach internal network resources -- e.g., file servers, printers and intranets -- as though the gateway is on the network locally.
A VPN can be described as an encrypted tunnel that shuttles your internet activity between your PC or phone and a host server. While the internet is a public space, a VPN works by extending an invisibility cloak across the user's activity and allows people to send and receive data in a mostly-anonymous manner. In the simplest terms, a VPN makes it hard for someone to track your activity.
When we took at look at your five favorite VPN service providers, we noticed a few things. First, being the “best” is big business for VPN providers, and they’ll fight dirty to be one of them. Second, there are so many VPN providers that it’s difficult to choose a really good one. VPNs are not all created equally, and in this post, we’re going to look at what a VPN is, why you want one, and how to pick the best one for you. Let’s get started.
Tunneling protocols can operate in a point-to-point network topology that would theoretically not be considered as a VPN, because a VPN by definition is expected to support arbitrary and changing sets of network nodes. But since most router implementations support a software-defined tunnel interface, customer-provisioned VPNs often are simply defined tunnels running conventional routing protocols.
Symantec Corporation, the world’s leading cyber security company, allows organizations, governments, and people to secure their most important data wherever it lives. More than 50 million people and families rely on Symantec’s Norton and LifeLock comprehensive digital safety platform to help protect their personal information, devices, home networks, and identities.
IVPN goes further than the other leading candidates we considered by being transparent about who runs the service and is responsible for your privacy. The company lists its core team on its website, and its small team has an online presence on a variety of platforms. In contrast, only one employee at ExpressVPN has a public face: VP of marketing Harold Li gave us detailed answers to questions about policies and internal security, but couldn’t tell us much about who else worked there. (We discuss ExpressVPN in more detail in the Competition section—that company was almost our top pick but for this issue.)
Chosen as one of Mashable's top three for staying anonymous online, NordVPN is a choice backed by much of Reddit. It's made for fast streaming and torrenting, P2P and non P2P options, and is one VPN that can actually bypass the American Netflix block anywhere in the world. Plus, a single NordVPN login can be used on up to six devices simultaneously, so sharing the perks and splitting the price is a major bonus for savvier internet users. Reddit user ambillop writes:
When a VPN connection drops, you might just lose your connection. But because the internet is very good at routing around failures, what is more likely to happen is your computer will reconnect to the internet application, simply bypassing the VPN service. That means that -- on failure -- your local IP address may "leak out" and be logged by the internet application, and your data may be open to local Wi-Fi hackers at your hotel or wherever you're doing your computing.
CyberGhost has been around since 2011 and has come out strongly as a supporter of "civil rights, a free society, and an uncensored Internet culture." We really liked how the company specifically showcases, on their Web site, how folks normally prevented from accessing such important services as Facebook and YouTube can bring those services into their lives via a VPN.