Whether you are a tin foil hat wearing cyber security aficionado or not, it’s a sad but true fact that our privacy is in danger. Even when surfing the web, data is collected in droves by big brands people used to trust. Add to this the internet blocks being introduced even in western nations, and people are realising the need to actively protect their own privacy.
Last week, when the UK government announced porn users would have to enter their details to be age verified from 15 July this year – signalling a potential privacy disaster – people all over the nation started showing more interest in virtual private networks (VPNs).
A VPN works by allowing you to browse privately and securely, encrypting your data and hiding your location. But not all VPNs are built the same. You need, for example, to be wary when a service is free and of course a VPN that logs your data is a definite no.
Set against a backdrop of increasing internet surveillance, data breaches and insecure public Wi-Fi, VPNs are an essential tool. Here is a useful guide including what to look out for and what to avoid when choosing a VPN, with some options to consider.
Some VPNs log data
VPNs that log data defeat the point of having one at all. VPNs caught saving users’ data include Hide My Ass and PureVPN, so it goes without saying that you should avoid these.
“One of the most important aspects to consider when choosing a VPN is security,” Ariel Hochstadt, co-founder of vpnMentor tells me. “A VPN that logs your data is not safe to use. You need to ensure you’re picking a reliable no-log VPN so that your data won’t be susceptible to leaks and attacks.”
And most of the data logged is totally uncalled for, says Robert Mardisalu, head of research at the Best VPN. “For example, if you use a free VPN like Hola this is what they’ll know about you: Websites you visit; how much time you spend on those pages; and timestamps.
“And to put the cherry on the top, they might sell your data to their partners.”
This research, which covers logging policies, is useful when choosing your VPN.
Trust and security
Trust is important. “Generally, you have to trust your VPN provider with your traffic more than you trust your network,” says Jerry Gamblin, principal security engineer at Kenna Security.
He thinks large commercial VPN providers, such as NordVPN or Private Internet Access (PIA), are best, because they are “invested in making sure that your traffic is delivered safely and quickly”.
“I have used PIA in the past, but due to some sites filtering those IP addresses, I have moved to building my own VPN server.”
Can VPNs be hacked? Yes, but it’s not easy: VPN Base says it’s best to avoid PPTP or L2TP/IPSec protocols; instead use only the latest versions of the OpenVPN protocol, which is considered to be extremely secure. “In terms of encryption, make sure your VPN provider offers 2048-bit or 256-bit encryption as they are harder to crack,” the site reads. “Rest assured, if anyone ever tries to hack you, these protocols and encryptions will be a real nightmare.”
VPNs by their nature can be slow, because they work by encrypting your data and sending it to another server. To avoid this, Hochstadt recommends choosing a server in your own country: of course, the further your data has to travel, the slower the connection will be. Other features such as server network size, encryption, censorship, and torrenting should also be taken into account, he says.
The fastest VPNs are ExpressVPN, Surfshark, NordVPN and CyberGhost, according Hochstadt, who has tested 300 VPNs.
Some VPNs will be located in countries with governments that allow their surveillance agencies to spy. For the highest level of anonymity, it’s a good idea to use a provider located outside of the “14-eyes” jurisdiction, says Mardisalu.
14-eyes is a list of countries that allow surveillance agencies to spy on people. Members include the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Where you can use them
Some people find their VPN is blocked in airports or hotels. At the same time, nations such as China ban or control VPN use. However, if a VPN is a good product, there isn’t place you can’t use them, says Mardisalu. “VPNs are made to bypass restrictions and make your connection anonymous. I use a VPN whenever I’m on a public Wi-Fi and they should work on 4G.”
Five VPNs to consider
Here are five highly rated VPNs that don’t log your data:
ExpressVPN, which comes highly rated by users and reviewers, works on devices including Windows, Android, iOS, Linux and routers. Based in the British Virgin Islands, it costs around $6.67 a month if you take out a 12-month plan. With a network of more than 2,000 servers in 94 countries, Express offers top notch coverage in Europe and the US. It also works pretty well in Asia, South America, the Middle East and Africa. It uses its own DNS servers and employs high end encryption tech to ensure your security and privacy.
ProtonVPN offers a truly free VPN but there are sacrifices to make if you don’t want to pay: The free version only allows you to connect one device at a time and speeds are slower. But there are paid for versions starting at $4 per month going up to $24 for 10 connected devices. Proton is also a trustworthy brand: most of you will be familiar with the highly-secure ProtonMail used by journalists and activists. Developed by CERN and MIT scientists, Proton doesn’t log your data so it’s never revealed to third parties.
A newcomer to the VPN market, Surfshark is quickly gaining popularity. It’s easy to see why. With over 500 servers in 50 countries, the VPN claims it is fast; it doesn’t collect logs and it allows you to connect as many devices as you like. Costing $11.95 a month and with discounts for multiple months, Surfshark offers Windows, Mac, iOS and Android apps and there’s 24/7 support if things go wrong.
Private Internet Access (PIA)
With over 3,300 servers in 32 countries PIA offers apps for Mac, Android, Windows, iOS and Linux, and browser extensions for Firefox, Opera and Chrome. Costing $9.95 a month, PIA blocks ads, trackers and malicious websites. It uses OpenVPN on desktop and mobile devices, making it a highly secure and trustworthy option whatever you want it for.
Like ExpressVPN, NordVPNis a big provider. Available on Windows, MacOS and Linux – and with apps for iOS, Android, and Android TV and encrypted proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox – NordVPN allows you to connect up to six devices. It’s also fast, with 5,100 servers in 60 countries and a one month plan for around $12.
Three more to consider
The following come highly rated by users:
Which one should you choose?
Making a final decision will depend on your technical expertise, what you want to use a VPN for and where you want to use it. Personally, I use ExpressVPN but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Proton is super-trustworthy and PIA also comes very highly-regarded. There are of course, VPNs to avoid, but hopefully by using this article plus a little research, you will feel confident in making the decision.