Through years of reporting and the Snowden leaks, we now know that the NSA's surveillance apparatus is enormous in scope. At one point, the agency had the ability to intercept and analyze just about every transmission being sent over the web. There are jaw-dropping stories about secret rooms inside data infrastructure hubs, from which the agency had direct access to the beating heart of the internet. With a VPN, you can rest assured that your data is encrypted and less directly traceable back to you. Given the mass surveillance efforts by the NSA and others, having more ways to encrypt your data is a good thing.
We also like how easy it is to connect, and how clear and accessible the settings are, on all platforms when using the IVPN app. (ChromeOS has an option to use a less-secure VPN protocol with most providers, including IVPN. But TorGuard, our budget pick, supports the more secure OpenVPN on Chromebooks and tablets.) If you do want to tweak some settings, IVPN has easy-to-understand checkboxes for most options. For example, the kill switch (labeled “firewall”) has an easy on/off toggle. Anytime it’s on and the app is open, all traffic in and out of your computer will cut off if you forget to connect to the service or the secure connection drops for some reason.
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.
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.
A VPN allows a user to securely access private networks with complete peace of mind. Whether you want a VPN in a country like South Africa for example, or in any other country, in the modern age, everything is possible. It has similarities to a firewall, except that a VPN disguises your IP address, so you are untraceable. By changing your IP address a top VPN like IPVanish ensures that if anyone is spying on you, they will not see your correct geographic location. VPNs use a combination of encryption protocols and dedicated connections; therefore, even if a hacker tries to access some of your data, they would be unable to read due to it being encrypted. With this level of encryption and security, you can always be sure that you are browsing anonymously with your VPN.
I recommend always using a VPN when using someone else's Wi-Fi network. Here's a good rule of thumb: If you're away from the office or home, and you're using someone else's Wi-Fi (even that of a family member or a friend, because you never know if they've been compromised), use a VPN. It's particularly important if you're accessing a service that has personally identifying information. Remember, a lot goes on behind the scenes, and you never really know if one or more of your apps are authenticating in the background and putting your information at risk.
For mobile devices, the situation is a little thornier. Most companies offer VPN apps for Android and iOS, which is great because we use these devices to connect to Wi-Fi all the time. However, VPNs don't always play nice with cellular connections. That said, it takes some serious effort to intercept cellphone data, although law enforcement or intelligence agencies may have an easier time gaining access to this data, or metadata, through connections with mobile carriers or by using specialized equipment.
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.
Setting up ExpressVPN and connecting to a VPN server was easy enough. Performance, when connected to the VPN server, was average at 49 Mb/s down and 16 Mb/s up, compared to our usual speeds of 125 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s up. Netflix complained about a proxy being in use when we used the automatic configuration option, but it worked fine when we manually selected a local U.S. server. Amazon Prime Video played just fine, and our other internet tests completed without issue.
However, the VPN’s reputation has suffered a little. Its Android software made an appearance in the list of “intrusive or malicious” apps. This is of course, a rare instance for a service of this stature. Nevertheless, the VPN still ranks among the greatest and safest choices online, especially for engaging in P2P activities. The monthly pricing starts at $11.99, which is quite expensive.
One of the most important choices you make when selecting VPN hardware or software is which VPN protocol to use. A VPN product might support multiple protocols or only one. A protocol that's weak or not widely supported could render your VPN unusable if someone exploits a vulnerability. A proprietary protocol could mean future compatibility problems. Although the practice has become less common, a few vendors still try to do their own thing cryptographically. Avoid these vendors' products like the plague. I strongly recommend that you stay away from products that use proprietary, nonstandard protocols and stick to one of the following major protocols.
We checked Google Searches and other metrics to learn that ZenMate exists as one of the most popular choices for most VPN users. As such, we obviously had to review the provider, which took us around 24-hours. We tested its performance for facets relating to privacy, P2P/Torrenting and streaming/unblocking. Overall, we would say that the Berlin-based provider is definitely upping its game, preparing to compete with other hit services.
And they manage to do all of this without sacrificing performance, offering one of the fastest download speeds (83 Mbps out of 100 Mbps) and the best 24/7 customer support in the industry. The only downside? It’s a little on the pricey side, with monthly plans starting between $6.67 and $12.95/mo. But it’s a small price to pay for excellent performance in almost every category.