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.

Consumers use a private VPN service, also known as a VPN tunnel, to protect their online activity and identity. By using an anonymous VPN service, a user's Internet traffic and data remain encrypted, which prevents eavesdroppers from sniffing Internet activity. VPN services are especially useful when accessing public Wi-Fi hotspots because the public wireless services might not be secure. In addition to public Wi-Fi security, a private VPN service also provides consumers with uncensored Internet access and can help prevent data theft and unblock websites.


HTTPS is a powerful tool that everyone should use because it helps keep sensitive browsing private at no extra cost to the people using it. But like most security standards, it has its own problems too. That little lock icon in your browser bar, which indicates the HTTPS connection, relies on a certificate “signed” by a recognized authority. But there are hundreds of such authorities, and as the EFF says, “the security of HTTPS is only as strong as the practices of the least trustworthy/competent CA [certificate authorities].” Plus, there have been plenty of news stories covering minor and even major vulnerabilities in the system. Some security professionals have worried about those least-competent authorities, spurring groups to improve on the certificate standards and prompting browsers to add warnings when you come across certificates and sites that don’t withstand scrutiny. So HTTPS is good—but like anything, it isn’t perfect.
IPVanish has a clear no-logging policy and is based in the USA, which doesn’t legally require logging of user activity. By the same token, there’s few data protection requirements and, in 2016, when it was owned by its previous parent company Highwinds, IPVanish handed over detailed connection information for use as evidence by the US Department of Homeland Security, even though it claimed to keep no logs at the time. Current owner StackPath says it intends to honour its no logging policy, but it’s not clear whether any technical changes have been implemented to ensure this.
Some VPN services will limit the total amount of data you can send and receive, either in one connection session or over the period of a month. Other VPN services will limit the speed of the data, effectively sharing less of their pipe with you than might be optimal. That could slow your browsing experience to a crawl or completely prevent you from watching streaming video.
Secure Shell (SSH) is a secure version of Telnet that you can use to log on and open a command line on a remote machine. You can also use SSH to establish an encrypted tunnel between two machines, effectively creating a VPN. Different versions of SSH use RSA or Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA) for secure key exchange and 3DES or Blowfish for data encryption. You can use a free program such as Stunnel (http://www.stunnel.org) along with a free version of SSH such as OpenSSH (http://www.openssh.org) to tunnel protocols such as Web and mail protocols through an encrypted SSH tunnel. All you need is a machine at either end running both these programs. SSH and Stunnel are an inexpensive way to implement a VPN, although setting up such a VPN requires a lot of configuration and might not scale to handle a large number of machines. An SSH VPN can, however, make a nice solution for connecting two servers that need to communicate securely, such as a Web server and a back-end database server.
HotSpot Shield is a product that has had some ups and downs in terms of our editorial coverage. Back in 2016, they picked up some very positive coverage based on founder David Gorodyansky comments about protecting user privacy. Then, in 2017, a privacy group accused the company of spying on user traffic, an accusation the company flatly denies. Finally, just this year, ZDNet uncovered a flaw in the company's software that exposed users. Fortunately, that was fixed immediately.
×