GROUP TEST:

Benny Har-Even tests out 13 of the best VPN ser­vices to find out which is the best

Tech Advisor - - Contents -

VPN ser­vices

Over the past few years pub­lic aware­ness of Vir­tual Pri­vate Net­works (VPNs) has grown, but for many they are still a mys­tery. Tra­di­tion­ally, they were used by busi­nesses to en­able their em­ploy­ees to ac­cess a com­pany’s in­ter­nal net­work se­curely. Nowa­days peo­ple use them for two main things: watch­ing TV and pri­vacy.

We all view catch-up TV video. Un­for­tu­nately, a lot of this is in­tended only to be watched in home ter­ri­to­ries. The BBC iPlayer and Sky Go, for ex­am­ple, are only meant to be viewed in the UK, and while Net­flix is ac­ces­si­ble around the globe, the con­tent avail­able varies across coun­tries due to li­cens­ing restric­tions.

This cre­ates a prob­lem as it means you can’t watch Bake Off when you’re abroad or ac­cess the sec­ond sea­son of your favourite pro­gramme that’s on in the US but isn’t avail­able over here. That’s pretty an­noy­ing, but is where a VPN can help.

How it works

A Vir­tual Pri­vate Net­work cre­ates a pri­vate tun­nel over the in­ter­net to a server. This can be lo­cated in the same coun­try as you or lo­cated some­where else. This means that, in the­ory, you can watch your favourite US show be­cause that’s where it thinks you are. Cru­cially, all data traf­fic sent over the VPN is en­crypted, so it can­not be in­ter­cepted.

To get started you’ll need to in­stall some soft­ware on your PC, Mac or mo­bile de­vice. Once you’ve logged in, choose a server in the lo­ca­tion where you’d like to ‘vir­tu­ally’ ap­pear. You then just carry on as nor­mal, safe in the knowl­edge that your ac­tiv­i­ties are pro­tected from pry­ing eyes.

Free and paid-for ser­vices

You don’t have to pay for a ser­vice ei­ther as some are freely avail­able, though these can have their draw­backs. They may, for ex­am­ple, be slow, un­re­li­able or col­lect in­for­ma­tion about your web brows­ing habits. Fur­ther­more, Net­flix is now ac­tively clamp­ing down on VPNs both free and paid, so there’s no guar­an­tee that they will work.

While you can try out a free ser­vice, we’d rec­om­mend go­ing for a rea­son­ably priced, paid-for VPN. These should per­form bet­ter, be prop­erly sup­ported and your pri­vacy will be pro­tected thanks to the added se­cu­rity of an en­crypted con­nec­tion.

Pro­tect your pri­vacy

The story of ac­tivists such as Ed­ward Snow­den and Ap­ple’s bat­tle with the US gov­ern­ment to un­lock an iPhone, have raised the pro­file of the need for pri­vacy. Your ISP will have records of all the web­sites you visit and if so or­dered by the gov­ern­ment could be com­pelled to hand over that in­for­ma­tion.

While you can try out a free ser­vice, we’d rec­om­mend go­ing for a rea­son­ably priced, paid-for VPN. These should per­form bet­ter, and your pri­vacy will be bet­ter pro­tected

If you don’t like the sound of that us­ing a VPN all the time makes sense.

Even if you are not too con­cerned about this, when you’re us­ing a lap­top or mo­bile de­vice on a pub­lic Wi-Fi, you are ex­pos­ing your brows­ing habits to any­one that is so in­clined to snoop. And if you have ever con­ducted on­line bank­ing over a pub­lic Wi-Fi net­work, you are re­ally ask­ing for trou­ble if you’re not go­ing through a VPN.

An­other use for VPNs is to by­pass ISP restric­tions such as line throt­tling when us­ing peer-to-peer (P2P). By go­ing via a VPN your ISP can’t tell what you’re do­ing and the throt­tling won’t kick in.

Se­lect­ing a ser­vice

If you’re con­cerned about pri­vacy, it’s im­por­tant to know where your VPN is based. In re­cent years some coun­tries have got to­gether to agree to ex­change in­for­ma­tion freely, nom­i­nally in a bid to en­hance ev­ery­one’s se­cu­rity. How­ever, many groups are crit­i­cal of this be­hav­iour be­liev­ing that mass sur­veil­lance im­pinges on our free­doms.

The coun­tries that have agreed to ex­change in­for­ma­tion are known as the Five Eyes: USA, UK, Aus­tralia, Canada and New Zealand. (Read more about the al­liance at tinyurl.com/mn5n­wbu.) The con­cern from pri­vacy groups is that a gov­ern­ment could com­pel a VPN provider to sup­ply in­for­ma­tion on its users through a court or­der. To avoid this you should choose a VPN provider that is based out­side of one of these coun­tries.

Log­ging

Ad­di­tion­ally, many VPN providers have dif­fer­ent lev­els of log­ging. Some choose to log con­nec­tion time stamps, IP ad­dress and band­width used, while oth­ers choose to log noth­ing at all. Need­less to say you have to trust the VPN provider that it isn’t mon­i­tor­ing your traf­fic, oth­er­wise you are head­ing right into a pri­vacy breach, in­stead of pro­tect­ing your­self from one.

Some will also store ba­sic pay­ment in­for­ma­tion, such as your name and ad­dress. How­ever, those look­ing for com­plete anonymity can seek a provider that ac­cepts pay­ment in the form of gift cards or Bit­coin, which makes it near-im­pos­si­ble to trace back to an in­di­vid­ual.

Pric­ing

Nat­u­rally, the cost varies be­tween providers and you should look for value for money. Keep an eye out for spe­cial of­fers that pop up af­ter you’ve been on sites for a while.

Fea­tures

Most VPNs sup­port all the ma­jor plat­forms but some of­fer more un­usual plat­forms such as Kin­dle or Google Chrome. Also look out for restric­tions on us­age – some ban P2P, while oth­ers are fine with it. Free­and trial ver­sions nor­mally have speed restric­tions, while paid-for ver­sions should have none. Note that en­cryp­tion can slow down con­nec­tions. OpenVPN pro­vides more pro­tec­tion, while PPTP is faster but less se­cure. You should be able to switch be­tween them depend­ing on need.

Also if you’re con­nect­ing to a server that’s ge­o­graph­i­cally far away, you are less likely to get the full speed that your ISP pro­vides. Look out for server speed claims and make sure that you con­duct tests to check whether you are happy early on, so you can get a re­fund within the time limit if you’re not.

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