Picking the right VPN service
It is widely accepted that having a stable VPN connection can help you protect your privacy and even unlock certain region-locked services that are otherwise not available to the masses.
However, just sticking your hand into the VPN barrel and pulling out whatever you can grab isn’t a smart approach when it comes to preserving your overall security, yours and your devices’ as well.
Some VPN services might not be fast enough for your taste, might not unlock everything that you need and most important, your data can be leaked if the service is not entirely airtight, or if logs are being kept and shared with certain third-parties.
Such situations can be predicted, since these pieces of information are available online and some providers have been involved in scandals, forcing things to become more and more transparent from day to day. Although some data can be found online, in order to know everything about your favorite VPN service, performing certain tests is absolutely mandatory.
Always test the waters
Benchmarking your VPN service can be done either in a quick and simple manner, a series of tests that are recommended for the regular, novice user, or in a more complicated way, which involves several more tests, a method that aims at advanced users. Among the basic tests we can find DNS leaks, IPv4 and IPv6 leaks as well as WebRTC leaks.
Note that, since these tests depend on various testing websites that locate problems, these tests are not conclusive in the process of picking a VPN provider, as some leaks might not be identified at all.
Basic test routines (for newbies)
Basic leak tests, which can be performed by virtually any user, can be simply done by connecting to the VPN server of your choice and visiting the test site (a collection of testing websites will be available below). It is also possible that you can test how good the VPN stands against random interruptions by connecting to the test website of your choice while on VPN, disabling your connection and reconnecting to the Internet afterwards.
You can use this list of testing sites in order to detect various leaks, whether it’s DNS, IP or WebRTC ones we’re talking about:
- IP X – This is one of the most complete testing website, as it provides you with tests for every type of basic leak described above (DNS, IPv4, IPv6, WebRTC and browser fingerprinting);
- IP LEAK – This tool provides you only with tests against IPv4, IPv6, WebRTC and DNS leaks;
- Perfect Privacy – Similar to “ipleak.net;”
- Privacy Research Lab – Similar to “ipleak.net” only without the IPv6;
- Test IPv6 – Only IPv4 and IPv6 leak tests;
- DNS Leak Test – Basic DNS leak test;
- BrowserLeaks – Web browser fingerprinting;
If you’re connected to a VPN server that’s outside your country, it is quite easy to spot a basic leak. Whenever performing WebRTC leak tests, it’s common to see a local IP address such as 10.0.0.1 or 192.168.1.2, as these are not leaks. However, if you see an external IP address, this should raise a bit of concerns, as this is exactly how a WebRTC leak looks like.
Complex VPN testing techniques
Now for the advanced leak tests; if you feel confident that your skills are polished enough to perform advanced VPN security testing, you might want to consider creating a suite of tools, each tailored for analyzing your connection and identifying leaked data.
Although you can put up a suite on your own, depending on the operating system you’re relying on at the moment, you can save yourself some time and turn to specialized third-party software solutions such as the leak testing tools developed by ExpressVPN that are available here.
These tools are able to identify any leak on Mac OS, Linux and Windows without any issue. Although they are more difficult to operate, these utilities are more reliable than the basic leak tests described above, so if you’ve decided that security is your top priority, you might want to consider skipping the basic tests and using special tools like ExpressVPN’s leak tests utilities.
Why leaks can be bad for you
DNS is a system that helps you convert URLs into numerical IP addresses and without a VPN, your ISP (Internet Service Provider) handles the URL to IP translation process. However, this should be quite worrying since the requests you make to your DNS servers are actually explicit logs, text files that keep a history of every website you ever visited.
In case you don’t see the big picture already, your Internet Service Provider can fetch this data and sell it to advertisers that use it to bombard you with targeted ads (you know what we mean, ads that are creepily specific and tailored to your needs).
Leaks occur whenever the translation requests to your DNS servers get out of the VPN loop, which reveals both your IP address along with your location and your browser history. This means that instead of the VPN server routing your DNS translation requests, your ISP gets all the logs, which leads us to the privacy violation scenario described above. The best solution to preventing DNS leaks is finding a VPN service that uses proprietary security and encrypted DNS resolvers.
If your VPN service is leaking IP address data, especially IPv6 ones since IPv6 is globally unique, you might want to turn to VPNs that either block IPv6 effectively or ones that provide you with full IPv4 and IPv6 support.
WebRTC leaks can be a problem if you’re using Chrome, Firefox or Opera browsers, as they’re not an issue with the VPN service itself, but with the browser you’re using. In this case you can either go with a VPN that provide you with full WebRTC leak protection or disable or block WebRTC in your browser.
Speed testing resources
Last, but not least, you might want to test your VPN speed, so that you can have a clear picture of your VPN’s speed performance. The factors that can have an effect on your VPN’s speed are the distance between you and the VPN server, processing power, number of other VPN users on the server and bandwidth restrictions.
There is a huge number of speed test websites, but some of the ones we found most reliable are: