The practical uses for a VPN service are plentiful. Want to access a website that your ISP has blocked? A VPN puts that website just one click away. Want to access the US version of Netflix from the UK? Just set your VPN to a US location and you're there. Want to access porn without your ISP or your business knowing about it? Want to download torrents without being blocked by your ISP? It's easy.
While you're connected to a VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one—not even your ISP—can see your traffic until it exits the tunnel from the VPN server and enters the public internet. If you make sure to only connect to websites secured with HTTPS, your data will continue to be encrypted even after it leaves the VPN.
Split tunneling is the generic term for software that lets you define which apps send data through the VPN tunnel and which travel outside the tunnel. This lets you route more sensitive activities, like web browsing or online banking, from more mundane but higher-bandwidth activities, like streaming music or playing video games. It's especially useful because Netflix blocks VPN use, as do other services. You can simply route these apps outside the VPN in order to avoid this problem. Not many VPN services offer this feature, but PureVPN does. Seek out split tunneling if speed is of primary concern.
VPNs also cloak your computer's actual IP address, hiding it behind the IP address of the VPN server you're connected to. IP addresses are distributed based on location, so you can estimate someone's location simply by looking at their IP address. And while IP addresses may change, it's possible to track someone across the internet by watching where the same IP address appears. Using a VPN makes it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
When we ran our recent Hive Five on VPN service providers, we heard from VPN providers begging to be included, angry CEOs who claimed their company was maliciously left out, and others accusing some of the contenders of illegal or unethical behavior. We took at look at the poll and the claims, and while there’s no definitive proof the poll was gamed, we decided to come up with our own top five, based on our own research rather than reader feedback, that are great whether you’re the privacy advocate, the student, or the downloader.
If you’re unsure about whether you should get a VPN, check out our post that explains what a VPN is and when one makes sense as a privacy and security tool. But most people leave their privacy and security vulnerable in ways that can be addressed with methods other than signing up for a VPN—methods that are potentially more effective. If you have a drafty house with paper-thin walls and halogen light bulbs, you’d get far more value out of every dollar by sealing up cracks, insulating, and switching to LEDs than you would by putting solar panels on your roof. Similarly, before you rush to sign up for a VPN subscription, you should consider these other ways to up your privacy game.
We'll go into greater explanation about these three metrics and how we collect them below. But choosing which is most important is tricky. Mostly, it depends on how you're using your internet connection. We assume that most people reading are major consumers of content. Reading the news, streaming movies, using BitTorrent, or listening to music on the web all require that your device pull down data more or less continuously. With that in mind, we've settled on download speeds as the most important benchmark.
Logging Policy – This is a tricky subject. The record of PureVPN is not quite clear of controversy, as the company was involved in a case of handing over a particular user’s information to the FBI. However, the particular incident in question was an ethical conundrum, where human rights of a bullied individual were at stake. I can’t really condemn PureVPN for playing its part in helping agencies catch a suspect of reprehensible cybercrimes. In fact, PureVPN has responded admirably to the whole incident with a change in its policies to prevent similar ethical dilemmas in the future. The company probably doesn’t enjoy playing Aristotle and resolving convoluted ethical problems for its own sake as well as for its users’.
Some users will also want to research a VPN provider’s peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing policies. There are VPNs that block torrents. Others turn a blind eye to them, but will sell you out in a heartbeat should you be up to no good. P2P is not our main focus here, but we will note in each review whether a particular provider allows file sharing or not.
My recommendation, and the protocol I most often choose to use, is OpenVPN. OpenVPN is a non-proprietary, open-source implementation of a VPN communication layer protocol. It's well-understood, well-regarded, generally quite secure, and robust. In addition, it has the benefit of being able to communicate over port 443, which is the standard port for https communication, which means almost all firewalls will allow OpenVPN traffic -- and most won't even be able to detect that a VPN is being used.
IKEv2 (Internet key exchange version 2) is a tunneling protocol developed by Microsoft and Cisco, which is usually paired with IPSec for encryption. It offers a wide range of advantages, such as the capacity of automatically restoring VPN connection when Internet drops. It is also highly resilient to changing networks, which makes it a great choice for phone users who regularly switch between home WiFi and mobile connections or move between hotspots.
The VPN services market has exploded in the past few years, and a small competition has turned into an all-out melee. Many providers are capitalizing on the general population's growing concerns about surveillance and cybercrime, which means it's getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it's throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil. In fact, since VPN services have become so popular in the wake of Congress killing ISP privacy rules, there have even been fake VPNs popping up, so be careful. It's important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you: reputation, performance, type of encryption used, transparency, ease of use, support, and extra features. Don't just focus on price or speed, though those are important factors.