Here’s how to buy the best VPN for your online safety

We used to see the internet as a free, open platform, but the last five years have seen this notion disabused. We’re aware that government agencies and foreign security services may be tracking where we go, what we do and who we talk to. We know that large corporations routinely monitor our activities when we use their services, and that we don’t always control how they use that information – or who they pass it to. We may live in or visit countries that block services and censor content, or we may want to use streaming services that offer more in their home territories than they do in the UK. When we access the internet through public wireless networks, there’s always some risk that someone may be spying on us.

By using a VPN we can get past these controls and limitations. We can hide our location and break the IP address links that tie our online activities to a specific place. We can hide activities, making it more difficult to log or monitor them. We can substitute a different location for our real one, enabling us to see censored content, access blocked services or use streaming services as if we were located in a different territory. While a VPN is no guarantee of privacy – let alone anonymity – it is one of the best tools we have to preserve it.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and in its most basic form is a means of extending a private network over one or more public networks (like the internet) so that you can send and receive data securely as if you were physically connected to the private network. If someone talks of connecting to their company VPN, for example, they mean that they have a secure means of connecting to the company’s network as if they were sitting in the office. All the data going back and forth is secure and encrypted and it’s hard for outsiders to listen in.

VPN services, however, mean something slightly different. Here you’re using the same basic method to create a secure connection between your device or computer and servers belonging to the VPN provider. All your network traffic passes through this connection, so that nobody can see it until it leaves the VPN server and goes onto the public internet. This has two effects. Firstly, it keeps your activities and communications private. Even your ISP can’t see or log what you’re up to. Secondly, it hides where you are – so protecting your identity – while making it look like you are wherever the server is based. You can live in Glasgow but look like you’re connecting from Finland, Maryland or the Bahamas. Only you and your VPN-provider know for sure.

Why should you use a VPN?

Many people are either comfortable with the idea that they’re online activity is being tracked, blocked or censored – or they simply don’t know or care. For the rest of us, there are three good reasons why we might want to use a VPN:

  • Privacy: While using a VPN won’t necessarily make you anonymous online, it goes a long way towards hiding your activities and making you harder to identify. That’s a plus for those who feel uncomfortable with government or corporate snooping, but an absolute must for whistle-blowers, activists and those living under oppressive regimes.
  • Security: If you use public WiFi in, say, a hotel or coffee shop, or if you can’t guarantee the security of other networks you connect through, then using a VPN gives you an extra layer of protection for accessing sensitive services or handling business while you’re out of the office.
  • Access: The country you live in or might be visiting could block access to certain websites or Web services – including social media services like Facebook and Twitter. Increasingly, mainstream ISPs are doing the same, though generally the sites involve porn, piracy or illicit material. What’s more, some sites and services – including video streaming services like Hulu or Netflix – have controls in place to ensure that users outside the US can’t access US content, which is a shame when there’s no service in your country or when the US service is superior. Using a VPN can get you past these blocks.

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Are all VPNs basically the same?

Nope. Some are awkward and technical to use, while others are incredibly simple. Some have large numbers of servers spread across the globe, while other have only a few in very specific territories. This will affect where you can appear to be connected from and also the number of users the service can support before the servers get congested and slow down the connections.

There are also huge differences in terms of performance. Using an VPN will result in a drop in your internet speeds, as all your traffic needs to be routed through the VPN’s network and servers. Some VPN services have invested in their technology and network, so the hit isn’t always noticeable, but others will see your speeds drop through the floor, to the extent that you’ll struggle to, say, stream video in any case.

How about privacy and security? Are they all equally private and secure?

Again, no. For one thing, the VPN provider can log and even monitor your traffic, with some free VPN services known to aggregate and sell some, mostly harmless user data. The trick is to check whether your provider logs your traffic, what they do with it and how long they retain any logs. Many now claim not to keep any logs whatsoever, but – to be brutally frank – there’s no way to know for sure.

Otherwise, the key factor is the provider’s home location. In some countries, like the US or the UK, the government and security services have more powers to request logs or monitor incoming and outgoing traffic; powers which your average VPN provider will be powerless to resist. If privacy or anonymity is your main reason to use a VPN, consider finding one based in a country outside the ‘fourteen eyes’ countries that routinely cooperate in surveillance and trade information – the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Italy Spain and Sweden – and particularly the first five, which make up the core ‘five eyes’ group.

Finally, different VPNs use different encryption protocols, some more or less secure than others, some having more impact than others on speed. OpenVPN, Chameleon and SSTP offer the best balance of performance and security. PTTP is fast, but potentially weaker.

Beyond security and performance, are there any other features I should look out for?

Some VPN services offer additional protection measures, including a ‘double hop’ that further disguises your location and identity, or DNS leak protection to stop your browser sending DNS requests – requests to target a specific URL – direct to your ISP rather than through the VPN, revealing your true location. Some have features to circumvent gateways and monitoring on public wireless networks, while others enable you to transform a PC or laptop into a virtual router, so that you can connect other devices through it so that they all use the VPN.

One other useful feature is a killswitch. Set this up for specific applications, like your browser, and should your VPN connection fail the browser will close automatically, preventing you from suddenly being exposed.

What about restrictions or limitations?

Not all VPNs perform equally well in different countries. Some might not work in, say, China, where the Great Firewall that prevents Chinese citizens accessing unapproved sites and content has become particularly good at spotting and blocking VPNs. Similarly, Netflix can now spot many VPNs and prevent you using them to access the US service. Just because one works one day, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will continue working in the future.

P2P and Torrents are often subject to restrictions. Some services simply don’t allow you to share or download torrents or P2P traffic through the VPN, while others might limit your ability to do so. Again, if that’s your bag – and we’re sure you wouldn’t dream of sharing content illegally – then check what the provider allows before signing up.

Finally, check how many devices you can use through the service, and whether the service supports all the devices you want to use. Many will allow you to use the VPN on up to five PCs, Macs or other devices, while others are limited to just the one. Not all support the full range of devices, either, so if you need something for your Windows laptop, your iPad, your Android smartphone and your Kodi streamer, shop around and narrow down your options.

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