What first started as discussions evolved into debates and eventually turned into laws. We are talking about online privacy and mass data surveillance, a topic that has gradually sparked the interest of people in VPN (Virtual Private Network).
These services offer secure internet navigation sessions and battle censorship, giving users the possibility to remain anonymous on the web and access content that is not normally available in their country.
Get rid of web intruders and access almost anything with VPN
If you think about it, VPNs actually restore the original state of internet, when it was possible to access anything without getting overwhelmed by ads or infected with malware. Anyone can download and install a VPN application, but things are not so easy as with other types of software. This becomes especially important if you plan on paying for such a service.
To help you figure out what is the best VPN for you, we are going to go through the basics: find out what happens when you go online (without routing your traffic), what VPN is and how it works, how VPN got started, what its benefits are, and what preparations you should make before getting such a tool. Next, we are exploring the legal implications, privacy concerns and company ethics that come with a VPN service and service provider.
What happens when you go online without VPN
To have an internet connection, you must make an agreement with an Internet Service Provider (ISP). This usually implies sharing your personal details such as name, date of birth, social security number and physical address. When you connect to the internet, your ISP assigns a public IP address to you, which becomes your unique identifier.
Any interested person or party can use this identifier to trace your host and location. The host is the network interface you are using, like an adapter with Ethernet cable or a router. For example, if you connect to the internet to download illegal torrents and if someone tipped off the authorities (this “someone” can even be your ISP), then the authorities would have no sort of trouble tracking you down through your ISP (which must turn in your personal info) and holding you responsible for your actions (depending on the legislation of your country).
What is VPN and how does it work
Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent this from happening. Two popular choices are to use a proxy server or a VPN service. It is extremely important to understand how each method works because a proxy is not the same as a VPN.
Both of them can preserve your online anonymity by encrypting the data you send and receive (if it’s a SSH – Secure Shell proxy). But each method has its own particularities, and it all depends on what you want to do when going online. You can keep your real IP address masked, view content that is not normally available in your region, connect to your workplace, or something else.
VPN tools offer a higher level of protection than proxy servers. They encrypt your information as soon as you establish a web connection. A VPN ensures that you remain safe and private by hiding your true IP address. At the same time, it gives you access to images, videos, music, products, services and other kind of online content that is not available in your country when using the internet without VPN.
How it all started with VPN
Places of business typically have a closed internal network (local network, or LAN) to make sure that unauthorized personnel cannot reach confidential digital data, including complete strangers, company spies, and hackers. However, this means that authorized employees have access to information only if they are physically within the range of the company’s LAN.
VPN services were initially created to allow employees to remotely connect to their workplace. From the outside, it looks like a VPN tricks the company’s server into thinking that the employee is currently sitting at their desk and working as usual. In fact, that person is actually in front of their laptop when staying home or traveling abroad.
How it works is that the VPN service creates a virtual private network. Only authorized personnel can connect to it, based on their username and password. On rare occasions, the company’s administrator may agree to provide free access to the internal network. It involves creating a whitelist of public IP addresses to allow unconditional access. But this is never recommended due to security reasons (anyone with the right IP address can gain access and cause some damage).
What can you do with VPN: Pros and Cons
Software developers quickly noticed and explored the potential of VPN technology. It meant hiding the real IP address provided by the ISP and replacing it with a new address from a different country, even if it is on the opposite part of the world.
Now, VPN services offer a broader range of benefits besides hiding your IP address and making a remote connection to your office. Here are some of the pros of using a VPN:
- Hide your footprints when going online, such as visited pages and downloads. This way, you can make sure that your online activity cannot be traced back to you
- Protect data sent over the internet when using public, free WiFi networks without a password. It can be credit card details when placing an order, or messages exchanged with a friend
- Unlock online content that is not normally available in your country or region. This can be Netflix shows, YouTube clips, Spotify music, Skype calls, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, or something else
- Download torrents and other files normally blocked to your real IP address
- Conceal your identity when downloading illegal torrents
- Play games with unrestricted access, like using servers that are unavailable to your area
- Add an extra layer of security against DDoS attacks when playing games. Some hardcore players with a grudge are capable of hacking you just to knock you out of the game
- Check prices of airplane tickets, car renting and hotel booking websites. This works with any sites that sell products or services with varying prices by location. There might be extra fees that only apply to your real location, like VAT (Value-Added Tax)
- Optimize your website by checking how pages are displayed for other countries. An example is a dynamic landing page that changes pricing and language by location
It is natural to assume there are some negative or risky aspects to using a virtual private network, too. Here are some of the VPN cons:
- May slow down your internet connection, depending on the VPN protocol and encryption
- May affect the overall performance of your computer, depending on the VPN software
- May lead to connection drops, depending on the VPN protocol, encryption and internet connection quality
- May put you on the radar of the NSA or whichever authority is in charge of national/international security in your country
On the bright side, most technical issues can be resolved by learning how to correctly configure a VPN, which protocol to use, which program features can be turned off to improve performance, and so on. We will make sure to guide you every step of the way.
What makes a VPN good
VPN and security applications in general are not as simple to download and install as other tools. Users who do not concern themselves with online privacy are probably only interested in a free VPN. Ideally, this service should connect to as many countries as possible and allow fast streaming, preferably without having to create an account. However, a bit of investigation into this matter will prove that there is more to VPN than meets the eye. No two services are the same, which also means there is no true “best VPN” for ALL users. Otherwise, there would not be any competition between developers.
Each concerned user who wants to learn how to properly use a VPN can begin by identifying their own needs. Simply put, what you want to do with a VPN determines what makes a VPN good:
- Protect online privacy (better encryption)
- View online streaming without lagging (better speed, better reliability)
- Check prices on websites with varying prices (more servers)
- Use a VPN on a computer, smartphone, tablet and smart TV (more devices)
- Use a VPN by all family members at the same time (more simultaneous connections)
- Use a VPN for extensive periods of time (more bandwidth, no data restrictions)
- Easy to configure (intuitive graphical interface)
- In case of VPN failure, protect user privacy by cutting of the web connection (kill switch)
- Anti-malware and anti-tracking protection (more security)
- In case of emergency, contact the developer for online assistance (better client support)
- Test-before-you-buy with money-back guarantee (better client support)
- Frequent software updates with new and improved features (better care)
- and so on
We’re not mentioning pricing on purpose. Anyone prefers giveaways, but free VPNs are significantly worse than premium products (more on that later). Simply put, it is reasonable to assume that the price should match the presentation. Only after setting these goals can you scout the market for VPN services and compare the offers. We will go through all products, break them down, and show you their upsides and downsides of VPN. Then you can decide for yourself which tool is the best VPN for you.
Carefully pick your VPN service by type and protocol
When hunting on the internet for the best VPN that suits your needs, there is a number of factors to take into account. Software developers have to do something so that their product sets itself apart from others, which is normal. Some focus on delivering as many servers as possible when connecting to remote locations from all over the works. Others are interested in extensive compatibility, making sure that their applications run on many operating systems and platforms. Firstly, it is necessary to understand the type of VPN you are interested in: remote-access VPN or site-to-site (aka router-to-router VPN).
VPN types: remote and site-to-site access
Remote-access VPN is capable of connecting a computer to a remote location, such as your office when working from home or traveling to another country. Strong focus is put on privacy since the connection should have to same level of security as if you were physically working at the office, isolated from the dangers of the internet. For the connection to be successful, you have to get passed AAA: Authentication (have an account), Authorization (get passed the firewall) and Accounting (your activity is being tracked by the company’s administrator).
Once logged in, you can perform any authorized activities like you would at the office, like downloading and uploading files, exchanging messages, and using other company resources. Remote-access VPN uses SSL or IPSec to ensure security. But SSL is typically used to provide access to a single application only, instead of the whole network. Some VPNs use IPSec paired with a tunneling protocol to transport data over the work, such as PPTP or L2TP (Layer-2 access).
Site-to-site VPN usually addresses large companies that have branches all over the world. Compared to remote-access mode, router-to-router VPN creates a tunnel between the entire local and remote networks. The main difference is that a VPN client is not required on the remote site because that is the role of the router. Most site-to-site VPNs use IPSec, too. However, it is common practice for large corporations to turn to MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) clouds for speeding up the connection within an enterprise environment that numerous machines depend on, as opposed to using the public internet. Either Layer-2 or Layer-3 access can be used in this case.
Frequently used VPN protocols
One of the fundamentals of a VPN tool lies within protocols. A VPN protocol is a set of rules and conditions, a language that is understood by both the machine sending the request over the web as well as by the computer receiving the request and sending a reply (VPN negotiation). There is no universal language used by all VPN tools, and this is where the protocols intervene.
Commonly used VPN protocols are PP2P, L2TP/IPSec, IKEv1, IKEv2, SSTP, TLS and OpenVPN. But this does not mean that a VPN application is tied down to a single protocol. On the contrary, most utilities give you the possibility to choose from a list of multiple protocols. Because each can be configured in its own way, distinct settings can be specified when picking a particular protocol.
For instance, when opting for PPTP, you just have to specify the username, address and server name. L2TP/IPSec, on the other hand, can make the authentication with public or private pre-shared keys or certificates. OpenVPN has the strongest security but it is a bit difficult to configure. Although PP2P does not stand out in the crowd as far as security is concerned, it is really easy to set up. Plus, it has native support for most operating systems and platforms, so you do not have to install any third-party software.
The topic of VPN protocols is rather extensive and delicate because it is important to not only keep an eye out for best speed, privacy or compatibility, but also any history of security leaks (some of these protocols are carefully being monitored by the NSA). For more information and advice on how which VPN protocol to use, you can check out our in-depth article about VPN protocols.
Is VPN Legal
If you are worried about the legal implications that come with using a VPN, then it is a good idea to do your research first and find out how your country’s government feels about turning to VPN services to surf the web. In most cases, it is perfectly legal to download, install and use this kind of software.
Nevertheless, you should be aware of countries where VPNs are, in fact, banned, especially if you are planning to travel there. For instance, North Korea, Iraq, Belarus and Turkmenistan prohibit the use of virtual private networks. It is not illegal in other countries like China, Russia and Turkey, but their government strongly discourages it.
Remembering all countries which raise a red flag is not necessary, but a good indicator for this is usually the Totalitarian regime. Besides, your VPN service provider should alert you as soon as something as important as a new VPN-related law emerges, regardless of the country.
Is VPN Safe
Since using a VPN brings up the question of what happens to your online privacy, you should get informed about the company’s practices, like whether or not it stores logs and then shares them with third parties. The sharing part is tied with the second aspect we mentioned: where the company is based.
What browsing data is kept and where is the VPN company based
All companies must have their headquarters registered in a certain country, and all must obey that country’s laws. Many countries have established laws about mass data surveillance, collection and sharing for the sake of national security. There are also international surveillance alliances made out of multiple countries, which have agreed to work together in ensuring international security (Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, Fourteen Eyes).
Unfortunately, these data surveillance laws are in direct contradiction with personal privacy. Even if a company has strict rules about not sharing your VPN data, it is obligated to hand it in to the authorities if required by law. On the other hand, if the company does not monitor and collect your private information, then there is nothing to share. Unless the government passes a law that bans VPN companies or obligates them to collect your data, then it does not matter where it is based.
The key info you are searching for has to do with data logging. The purpose of logs is to preserve as much as possible about the user’s browsing behavior. VPN providers might not see and keep the actual information you are sending and receiving over the internet. But they can create a database of records with IP addresses you communicate with or the types of used devices. Other records may focus on timestamps of connections and disconnections, or proof of payment.
These bits and pieces of information are not enough to reconstruct your original session routed through your virtual private network. But they can still be used against you in the right circumstances. Therefore, if you want to avoid this, use the services of a VPN provider that stores no logs.
Company policy and VPN marketing strategy: reading between the lines
However, this technique is usually a clue of false promises or misdirection adopted by the company. The expression “the best VPN” cannot possibly have legal value because it would mean defining in a court of law what “best” represents. The phrase “the number one VPN” can be misdirection if resulted from a poll conducted by the VPN company. Or the poll could had been made from a third party that is paid by the same company. The point is that there are few candidates thrown in, all with generally poor performance results.
It is not currently illegal for companies to use words and expressions for exaggeration. But most of them are careful enough to not lose sight of reality. Nevertheless, some companies tend to cross the line just for the sake of grabbing people’s attention. Those are mainly the ones you should learn more about.
If you want to be are thorough as possible, you should also look into the background of the VPN provider. A quick Google search should give you any news about scandals and other events that generated negative press, if any. Another important aspect is the way the companies handles these unflattering events. All of this can give you some insight about the honesty policy of the company and about what you can expect from it in the future. When paying for a premium subscription for one, two years or more, it becomes essential to know how your VPN provider will be able to solve your possible issues (customer support plays a key role, too).
Free vs. premium VPN
There are both free-to-use and paid VPN services out there. In this case, you are probably wondering why should you ever have to pay for a VPN application. Especially when there are many companies offering their products for free. What we previously outlined for virtual private network jurisdiction applies to the free-versus-premium-VPN topic as well. You should know what you are getting yourself into and what you can expect. It is also important to tell when a VPN developer crosses the line.
If you know a bit about antivirus applications, then you can apply the same principle to VPN services. There are antimalware programs that usually have “Professional”, “Premium”, “Total”, “Ultra” or other impressive adjectives in their name. And there are also free versions of the same programs available. The free version uses the same engine and virus definition database as its paid counterpart. But it does not offer much else. This is because premium products are expensive to maintain. They imply continuous updates, new features, and investigation into issues that require immediate solutions.
Some VPN developers come up with feature-rich and reliable products that they offer for a price. Reputable companies wish to prove that their product is worth the money, so they provide users with a free trial. During this trial, all features are unlocked and can be tested for a limited amount of time, completely free. In some cases, premium features might be locked during that trial period. In other cases, some options remain locked but the application can be used for free forever.
Free but ad-supported and questionable VPNs
Free-to-use VPN services are a good place to start when you have just begun to explore this kind of software. For example, the free version is a decent solution when you need to quickly install a VPN to download a file. However, this should only be apply for one-time scenarios. Free VPNs are not recommended for long-term use – developers usually do not take good care like for premium software.
Furthermore, free VPN products often contain third-party applications during installation. These are offers that you can accidentally and unwillingly accept if you rush through the setup stage. Otherwise, you might see ads or banners while using a virtual private network app, which only make room for possible malware attacks. Developers adopt the ad-supported technique to compensate for not charging users. This happens because they must get money from somewhere else, like third-party developers who pay them for promoting their products.
Many people are also wondering when it is okay to use and not to use a VPN. The simplest answer is that it is always a good idea to route your internet traffic through a virtual private network. The only time you should disconnect from VPN is when your first priority is to achieve the best possible internet speed. For more information, check out our article about why VPN services affect your Internet speed and how to tweak it.
What we plan to do here at FindYourVPN is to analyze all bits of information related to VPN and online privacy, showing you our results and ideas. Our main focus is on testing, researching and reviewing VPN services and service providers. And we are always open for suggestions.