Ep. #7: How to Pick the Right VPN Service

And Why You Really, Really Need One…

April 26th, 2019

There are very few topics I write about which deserve a yearly check-in. Securing our online privacy is one of them. Given how quickly both technology and the global climate can change, it’s worth revisiting my research, opinions and recommendations on matters of privacy. So, let’s start at the beginning. I’ll start with the bad news, then give you the good news.

The Bad News: Online Privacy is, Essentially, Gone

The concept of privacy is a crucial bedrock of any Democracy. However, that privacy should also apply to what we do online, not just in our homes. Unfortunately, that right is now gone. If you have a high-speed data connection to the Internet in the US, it’s most likely provided by a company named AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Charter, Hughes or Verizon. Those companies know when you connect to the web, they know where you surf on the web and they know how long you spend on the web. Even so, there used to be restrictions on what those companies could do with your data.

At least, there was until 2017. In 2017, the US Congress voted to allow US internet service providers (or “ISPs”) to sell our browsing data without our consent to anyone they wish. This wasn’t a surprise to people who follow cyber security because those people have been watching the ease of right to online privacy steadily erode.

The Good News: We Can Reclaim The Privacy We’ve Lost

However, there’s a simple, legal and affordable tool we can use to hide our data from companies like AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Charter, Hughes and Verizon. This tool ensures that those companies can’t know the websites we decide to visit. The tool is called a virtual private network or “VPN”. There is, currently, no better method I know of to help folks reclaim their online privacy.

Connecting to the internet through AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Charter, Hughes and Verizon ensures that those companies can log or monitor — if they wish — every website and IP address that we visit while we’re using their connection. However, by using a VPN service, we add a layer of protection between our ISP and the websites we visit. That prevents our ISP’s from seeing where we surf online. Instead, all they can log is that we’ve connected to our VPN service. It’s like surfing the internet using a Harry Potter invisibility cloak! Only, in this metaphor, the bad guys are the ISPs, hackers and the U.S. Government, not Malfoy and He Who Must Not Be Named.

If you need a visual to better understand, here’s a simple graphic to assist. The top half of the picture, in green, shows how using a VPN works to keep your internet data encrypted or protected from the prying eyes of our ISP; the bottom half of the picture, in red, shows how surfing the web without a VPN exposes our data to our ISP:

Remember: This is About Privacy

Some of you believe — because you’re not doing anything illegal online — that you don’t need a VPN. Bravo to you, but, respectfully, you’re missing the point.Acting illegally online isn’t the issue: the issue is having privacy online, plain and simple. Think of this real world analogy: would you be comfortable knowing that various companies kept logs with timestamps tracking exactly where you drove, exactly what you did at work, exactly where and when you banked, exactly where you shopped and with whom you spent all of your time?

No? Then you’ll want a VPN.

How To Choose The Right VPN

There are hundreds of companies that provide VPN services. Trust none of them… at least until they’ve proven to you that you can trust them. What defines trust differs from person to person, so I’ve developed the list below that defines it for me. Your list might be slightly different but mine is based on four, core principles: privacy, anonymity, convenience, and security. With those four principles in mind, I recommend that you only choose a VPN service which:

  1. Keeps no logs on the websites nor the IP addresses that its customers visit for privacy.

  2. Is NOT headquartered in the United States, for security from scrutiny by the US government.

  3. Is NOT a member of the 5, 9, or 14 eyes security agreement, also for security from scrutiny by the US government and its international partners.

  4. Offers servers physically located in at least 8 to 10 different countries, for convenience and for security.

  5. Allows at least 5 different simultaneous connections on your account, for convenience so you can have your computers and mobile devices all connected.

  6. Offers a connection using the “OpenVPN” standard, considered a top protocol for security.

  7. Uses an SSL Certificate, also considered essential for security.

  8. Offers a free trial and/or a money-back guarantee after at least 14 days, for convenience.

  9. Supports Macs, PCs, Android, and iOS devices, for convenience.

  10. Allows payment through cryptocurrency or gift cards, for anonymity.

I’ve listed the small handful of providers below that meet all ten of these criteria. Click on any company name (the link is bolded) to visit their websites and learn more. Expect to pay $3–10/month depending on the plan you decide to purchase. I respect these companies enough that I elected to become an affiliate with most of them. That means if you purchase a VPN plan using my links, I receive a small commission of the sale as a “thank you” for recommending them. Those tips, when added up, help me earn my living, so thank you, in advance for supporting my research and writing.

My Recommendations:

  • NordVPN, headquartered in Panama, is the VPN provider that I personally use. For years, I’ve relied on Nord’s ease-of-use and powerful features. With more servers in more countries, Nord usually ranks in top 10 lists for its speed, features, and security. Nord’s smartphone apps are easy to use, something that made it easier for me to adopt using VPNs on my mobile devices. Nord offers Wireguard, the newest and fastest VPN software protocol. Lastly, Nord’s been audited by PwC - twice - to confirm that they don’t keep logs of their customer’s web browsing habits. Priced at less than $5/month for a two-year plan it also won’t break the bank.

  • ExpressVPN, headquartered in the British Virgin Islands, is one of the most popular and trusted VPN providers on the planet with servers in 94 different countries, live 24/7 tech support (a very nice touch!), and have also been audited by PwC to confirm that they don’t keep logs of customer’s web browsing habits.

  • ProtonVPN, headquartered in Switzerland, is offered by the very same company that offers the highly secure ProtonMail service. While Proton can’t offer the fastest VPN connection speed or the servers in most countries, but they offer something most providers do not: a free tier with limited speed and service. Good for them; I love this.

Honorable Mention:

  • VPNarea, headquartered in Bulgaria: a smaller company providing better service, so I’ve read. Their speeds aren’t the best, but the country of Bulgaria has strict data retention and “No Logs” laws While the company provides their user servers in other countries, there aren’t as many as some of their competition. Still, a great choice for the average user.

  • CyberGhostVPN, headquartered in Romania, offers notoriously fast VPN speeds at a very affordable price depending on the plan you decide to purchase. While they were audited regarding their logging practice, that was almost a decade ago, an eternity in the world of tech, so proceed with care.

Previous Choices I No Longer Support:

In the 2+ years since I wrote this episode, some key recommendations have changed. Here’s what happened and why I changed what I’m recommending:

  • SaferVPN, which was headquartered in Israel was a great choice until they merged with another company, StrongVPN. As this parent company is headquartered in the United States, I can no longer recommend their services. Ditto for IBVPN, another VPN company I’d used previously that merged with StrongVPN.

  • BlackVPN, headquartered in Hong Kong. Given that the Chinese government now controls the once-independent city, I cannot recommend that anyone use their product. China is one of the biggest state sponsors of malicious hacking globally. I cannot trust any “privacy” or “security” software that comes from any region that it controls politically.

  • Cactus VPN, previously headquartered in Moldova, is now headquartered in Canada. As such, I cannot recommend their services: Canada is a signatory to the Five Eyes security agreement with the US and other nations, allowing them to share data.

Additional Options to Consider

Some of you might have very different and specific priorities when shopping for a VPN service. For example, some of you might want to be able to freely surf the web in China; others might wish to log into your American Netflix account while traveling internationally; some seek to experiment with “Double VPN”; and the thieves among you — you know who you are! — might want to download torrent or USENET files. Regardless of your specific needs, my advice is to start your research with the companies I’ve listed as some of them also provide these “bonus” features on top of a very strong product that enables additional layers of privacy, anonymity, and security.

Parting Thoughts

I’ll update this list at least once a year as the technology landscape changes regularly. In the meantime, I encourage you to do your own research! Here’s someone I follow because he’s the most fanatical VPN reviewer and tester I’ve ever seen when it comes to comparing the world’s best VPN services.

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