Online privacy is high in demand, which leads to an explosive market growth. This is good for everyone in the privacy and security business. This is good for the consumers because they get to have ample choice of tools and services from the private inbox, encrypted chats, secure cloud storage, identity management solutions, anonymous browsing tools and ways to make anonymous purchases online.

The bad news is many opportunist companies are now making false claims they can provide complete anonymity. And Virtual Private Network providers constitute one large niche that is uber-popular but infested with such opportunist or downright malicious providers.

At Fortknoxster, we are avid proponents of VPNs, but let’s be honest – not all VPNs work as advertised, and way too many myths and misconceptions plague the topic.

Define VPN

A VPN, Virtual Network Provider, is an online service provided by many companies. The gist of the service is to tunnel your traffic through the provider’s servers.

Without a VPN, your Internet Service Provider, state surveillance et al. can see your traffic. A VPN normally:

  • Encrypts your traffic
  • Hides your traffic from your ISP, hackers, spies, etc.
  • Lets you bypass censorship, geo-blocks, circumvent employer-imposed browsing bans
  • Facilitates P2P, allows you to hide from patent trolls
  • Protects your data when you connect from public WiFi

Note: The entire industry of VPNs is based on TRUST. It doesn’t matter if a provider encrypts your traffic or simply provides you with basic DNS proxy because, at the end of the day, the provider’s servers tunnel your traffic. If the provider is not trustworthy, your data is at risk. So, when choosing a VPN, you must vet providers’ credibility. Let’s see how you can establish if a VPN is trustworthy.

VPNs Don’t Make You Anonymous

One of the frequently used sales pitches many VPNs use is complete anonymity online. That’s sheer populism.

A VPN does not make you anonymous online.

Do yourself a favor and always read Terms of Service (ToS) and Privacy Policy (PP) of any provider offering privacy or anonymity online. At VPNs, there is often a degree of legalese that:

  • Explains logging, or
  • Obscures provider’s logging practices

For example, Hotspot Shield is a popular VPN service that offers “anonymous surfing” on its main page, while their PP explicitly state they record your browsing, your IP address and unique device ID.

Consider:

  • From the technical perspective, maintaining such a massive IT infrastructure as a VPN without any logs whatsoever is impossible.
  • In most cases, your VPN provider knows who you are and what you do online since your traffic goes through their servers.
  • VPNs don’t make you anonymous but increase your online privacy and security of your data.
  • VPNs aren’t islands. They are companies headquartered in certain places that may or may not have data retention laws, gag orders, surveillance regulations. VPNs have to abide by these regulations.
  • VPNs cannot protect you from websites that track you through audio beacons, browser fingerprinting, or cookies.

Recommendations:

  • Always read provider’s ToS and PP.
  • Prioritize providers based in countries with pro-privacy laws.
  • Pro-privacy VPNs will accept cash, Bitcoin, or gift cards to preserve your anonymity at the checkout.
  • Decent VPNs will not require your credit card information, address, or phone number at registration.
  • Always investigate provider’s logging policies. If they are shady, steer clear.

Zero-Logs VPNs Explained

VPN providers may store two kinds of logs on you:

  • Connection logs, which comprise your metadata such as when you connect to a VPN, how often, for how long, and how much data you consume.
  • Usage logs, which is what you do online when connected to a VPN, such as identities and aliases you use, websites you visit.

Some providers keep both connection and usage logs; others keep only connection logs. Some VPNs keep connection logs for a limited time for troubleshooting purposes, and then delete them.

Recommendation: avoid providers that do not disclose how they manage your logs.

Free VS Paid VPNs

It’s worth mentioning that the majority of providers that offer free VPN as their primary product aren’t recommended by most security experts. And here is why.

Running a VPN infrastructure requires substantial resources – human, technical and financial. A VPN company that does not charge its customers monetizes by selling the customers data. In other words, your data is their money.

Such providers may offer free for life VPN, but your devices would end up riddled with malware, and tracking scripts whereas your browsing will be accompanied by highly targeted ads. At the same time, your privacy will be exposed to a countless number of third parties.

The only credible scenario where a VPN provider offers some free but limited service is to lure you into subscribing to their fully-fledged paid plan. It can be a time-limited free trial or a daily limit of XX MB you can use, but the providers that don’t trade your data will charge you.

How To Choose A VPN

Here is a list of questions you should be asking before subscribing to a VPN service.

  • Do they keep connection and usage logs? If yes, do they delete them?
  • Does the provider explain its encryption technology? Do they support OpenVPN?
  • Can you connect from all your devices, desktop, and mobile?
  • How many devices can you connect simultaneously?
  • Are technology and protection mechanisms different in their VPN desktop client, and on mobile?
  • Can you test their connection speeds before buying? Are these speeds good enough for you?
  • Does the provider offer enough servers located in the countries and regions of your interest?
  • Is there a live chat support? VPNs can get technical, so you must be able to get help quickly.
  • Do they offer anonymous payment methods, such as cash, gift cards, Bitcoin?
  • Is there a refund policy, and how restrictive it is?

Of course, there are many factors at play here, and you might want to browse VPN reviews before even trying out a service for yourself.

Note: many reviews are sponsored, especially on high-profile specialized websites that profit from affiliate programs. So, when reading a review, pay close attention and discard anything that sounds too promotional, or does not scrutinize privacy and security issues. Alternatively, browse Reddit or Quora for user feedback. You may find a sharp contrast between reviews on high-profile portals and public forums.

When To Use A VPN

Every time you need to protect your sensitive data, be it to connect to an encrypted chat, or download files from your encrypted file storage, or make a VoIP call.

Whenever you need to connect to the Internet from a public WiFi hotspot, you absolutely must use a VPN to prevent opportunist hackers from intercepting your data.

ISPs may throttle your data if they suspect you might be consuming too much of it, so a VPN lets you bypass these restrictions. Likewise, if you want to bypass censorship, you need a VPN. Online gaming stores like Steam and streaming services like Hulu, BBC iPlayer or Netflix restrict some of its newest content to US-based IP addresses only, leaving a lot of ordinary, well-intentioned users behind.

In some European countries, platforms like YouTube are censored or restricted, so China or Arab Emirates are by far not the only places where you need a VPN. Overall, a VPN, just like encrypted inbox and chat, has become an indispensable tool for privacy wonks these days.

 

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