You must have heard of cybercriminals who steal data of Internet users or record their confidential information. Nowadays, even a regular person uses a network to watch movies, listen to music, and hang out on social networks. Along with this, more and more people make purchases and transfer money online. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that the data that we send or receive through the Internet is completely safe. Such security can be provided by a VPN service. But whether all VPN vendors are doing well when it comes to ensuring your anonymity and keeping your data intact? Well, it would be too good to be true. There are only a handful of vendors that really take great care of your online security. In this article, I will talk about the most secure VPN services and indicate what factors you should take into account when entrusting your privacy to one of them.
The Best VPN Services for Your Anonymity
There is a multitude of VPN provider to choose from but not all of them can really protect your data from third-party interference. If a VPN carries outs connection and activity logs, has a poor privacy jurisdiction and doesn’t offer a foolproof encryption, you should stay away from such a service. For you not to get into a trap, I analyzed hundreds of providers and compiled a list of trustworthy VPNs. You are only to look through brief descriptions of the most secure VPNs but if you want to see a full picture please be sure to check these comprehensive reviews.
NordVPN is a provider for which your security is the number one priority. The service is packed with all necessary security functions and it offers some more on top of that. The most reliable OpenVPN encryption protocol is in place and if you wish to try something different you can use IKEv2 / IPsec, L2TP/IPsec, and PPTP. You don’t have to worry about leaks – a Kill Switch will ensure that no data gets through an unsecured connection. If a standard set of security functions feels like not enough, with NordVPN you can get more than other providers offer. Just check their DoubleVPN feature that does twice as much work to encrypt your traffic. NordVPN has a strict zero-logging policy and its registration in Panama is perfect for maintaining your anonymity.
With an airtight no logs policy and privacy-friendly jurisdiction, ExpressVPN will keep your identity intact and help to bypass your internet provider’s congested network. What is even more important, the service offers all the cutting-edge security functions while maintaining lightning-fast connection speeds. You have a military-grade encryption at your disposal delivered by OpenVPN. The provider took great care to include other options into their roster such as PPTP, L2TP/ IPSec, SSTP, and TCP/UPD tunneling protocols. ExpressVPN boasts its own private DNS database which means your connection is not only faster but also more secure. You can also hide your identity thanks to anonymous payment methods, which include Bitcoin.
3. Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access is an up-to-date service featuring cutting-edge security facilities. Although it is registered in the USA, you don’t have to worry about your privacy – a strict zero-log policy makes it nearly impossible to trace your online activity back to your IP address. The service supplies all the latest tunneling protocols (OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, PPTP), plus SOCKS5 web proxy to hide your real IP address and location while P2P and VoIP connections. PIA even has a trademark build-in malware blocking tool PIA Mace. To keep your privacy intact, the provider accepts anonymous payments via gift cards and cryptocurrency.
IPVanish offers access to the military grade 256-bit encryption thanks to OpenVPN protocol. You can also use a reliable L2TP/IPSec protocol to take care of your security or SOCKS5 proxy to mask your IP during VoIP connections and torrenting. The service doesn’t retain traffic logs.
CyberGhost supplies all the necessary security features including state-of-the-art 256-bit AES encryption, OpenVPN, L2TP-IPsec and PPTP protocols, a reliable kill-switch and protection against DNS/ IP leaks.
Windscribe is a provider which services you can get for free if 10GB data per month is enough for your browsing needs. The company is registered in Canada which is a 5 Eyes member, but they promise not to keep any permanent logs. AES-256 with OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocols are in place as well as an Ad blocking software.
How to Find a Safe VPN
Many people talk about a safe, anonymous, or secure VPN, but what do they really put into this concept?
The capabilities of VPNs are so versatile that users employ these services for various purposes. Some people need a private network to change their IP address in order to bypass geo-blocking. In this case, a secure VPN is such a service that reliably conceals a user’s geographical location and gives an IP address enabling to access restricted content.
For other users, it is important to maintain the confidentiality of their correspondence and keep personal data intact. For these people, a secure VPN is a service that encrypts data with an unbreakable cipher.
In countries with strict censorship and control over the users’ activities, it is critical to ensure the anonymity of online surfing. To be considered safe, VPNs must disguise identities of their clients and hide all the digital footprints of their travels on the network.
As you can see, VPNs provide security at several levels. In general, the most secure VPN services are those which implement privacy-enhancing measures consisting of reliable encryption, the absence of log records, and various kinds of leaks. Let’s look at each of the VPNs safety factors in more detail.
One of the fundamental functions of a VPN is encryption of users’ traffic that allows protecting data from investigating by cybercriminals or government services. Without an encryption key, your data can not be read even if culprits get their hands on it. There are many encryption methods that differ in their degree of reliability. Some algorithms are deemed as unbreakable while others are obsolete and it is not that difficult to hack them.
If you want to get your head around encryption, let’s start with learning the basic concepts.
Ciphers are mathematical algorithms used in the encryption process. To date, the most widespread and common ciphers for VPNs are AES and Blowfish. Additionally, RSA is used for encryption and decryption, while SHA-2 and SHA-3 are applicable for authentication and hashing.
Encryption key length allows figuring how long it will take to decrypt data. In the simplest form, these are the rows of 0’s and 1’s used in a cipher. When searching for a key using a “brute force” method, the all possible combinations are checked until the right one is found. Typically, a key length for a VPN is either 128 or 256 bits. This means that a key with a length of 256 bits is much harder to hack than its 128 counterparts. 256 bits is the key length that the US government uses to protect sensitive data. It is said that even with a 128-bit key it may require hundreds of years to find a combination.
When you hear that a VPN service implements AES-256 encryption you can be sure that your confidential data is reliably protected from attacks by hackers or government intelligence agencies. AES-256 is also known as military-grade or bank-grade encryption which is currently impossible to break.
A cipher is paired with hash authentication and perfect forward security. The former is a mechanism for verifying the integrity of information. It allows ensuring that data transferred through unsecured networks has not been altered by unauthorized persons. Today, VPN services use HMAC SHA-2 or SHA-3 hash authentication. Perfect forward security creates a new encryption key for each VPN session.
Protocols are a mechanism for establishing a secure (encrypted) connection between two devices. To date, OpenVPN is considered to be the most secure tunneling protocol. OpenVPN is an open source technology that uses the SSLv3 / TLSv1 protocols and the OpenSSL library. The protocol offers a variety of configuration options and supports many encryption algorithms but the preference is given to Blowfish and AES. By default, VPN services provide 128-bit encryption, however, more and more VPN services implement 256-bit ciphers.
The process of the OpenVPN setup is slightly more complex than that of other protocols. You will have to download and install a client and then spend some time to modify the configuration files. With this being said, some VPN providers do offer pre-configured clients.
There are other security protocols supported by VPN services, but they can’t compare with security delivered by OpenVPN. PPTP was a standard encryption protocol since the day VPNs emerged. It is a point-to-point tunneling, that is, a virtual private network is created within a regular network. PPTP is the fastest protocol because it requires the least calculation. In addition, it is very easy to configure. Unfortunately, today the protocol is considered outdated and it is quite easy to crack it. PPTP can only be used when a speed of connection takes priority over the encryption.
L2TP is a layer 2 tunneling protocol. It doesn’t have embedded means to protect data, therefore it is often paired with other encryption protocols, IPSec in particular. All modern devices and systems compatible with VPNs have built-in L2TP / IPSec protocol. It is easy to install and configure, but you may encounter a problem with UDP port 500, which can be blocked by NAT firewalls. So, if the protocol is used with the firewall, you may need to redirect the ports. One of the major drawbacks of L2TP is that it runs slower than other protocols.
SSTP is a protocol created by Microsoft. It has been primarily running on Windows devices but now is also available for Linux. This protocol uses SSL v3, so it has almost the same advantages as OpenVPN, in particular, the ability to bypass NAT firewalls. Of the shortcomings, some analysts believe that Microsoft cooperates with government services, so its encryption might be compromised by the NSA.
IKEv2 provides a high degree of security thanks to the support of 3DES, AES, and AES 256 encryption. Originally, the cipher was developed for Windows-powered devices. Although over time the list of IKEv2-enabled devices has expanded, it is still not available on many platforms. IKEv2 is faster than L2TP, PPTP, and SSTP and it’s easy to install and configure.
Zero Logs Policy
Every time you surf the net, your ISP gets a lot of information about your activity. It can see when you go online, which sites you visit, which files you download, etc. VPN service can hide this data from your ISP provided that it doesn’t record your logs itself.
There are two types of logs that can potentially expose your identity:
– connection logs that contain information about your IP address, IP addresses of VPN servers you connected to, the time of the beginning and the end of a VPN session and its duration, and the amount of transferred data. Some providers actually keep these logs. However, it is hard to figure users’ activity on the network based on this data because it is only known when a person used a VPN but not for what purposes.
– usage logs – this data can show the whole picture of your online travels. This type of logs tells what files you downloaded, which sites you visited, what software you used. If your VPN provider collects such data then it is not able to ensure your privacy.
The most secure VPN providers are those that exercise a zero log policy meaning they do not keep any logs at all. This is important if a government forces your vendor to turn over data about its clients. If there are no logs, then there is nothing to provide.
Good Privacy Jurisdiction
The place of a VPN provider’s registration is also important to ensure your online anonymity. Why? It is because some countries have laws on compulsory data retention. If a VPN service is under the jurisdiction of such a country, it is required to log information about its users and, at the request of government services or law enforcement agencies, provide these logs. France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Portugal and some others countries have such laws. For this reason, VPN services prefer not to register there.
Some countries are members of intelligence alliances known as 5 Eyes (the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), 9 Eyes (the above-mentioned countries and the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Denmark), and 14 Eyes (includes participants of the 9 Eyes plus Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, and Italy). These countries actively monitor their residents and tourists and even oblige Internet providers to retain and store data about their subscribers. Secure VPN services avoid the legislation of these countries in order to be able to freely exercise no-logging policy.
If you look at the geographical location of the major VPNs you will see that many of them are registered in Panama or in the British Virgin Islands, which are offshore territories. The jurisdiction of offshore zones allows VPN providers to destroy user logs and not worry about the requests of foreign special services.
Sometimes, for reasons beyond VPN providers’ control, connection with their servers may drop. If this happens, your real IP address can be compromised. VPN services that really care about your security took measures to prevent your private data from being disclosed.
For this, they arm their software with a function of an emergency disconnection known as a Kill Switch. Basically, this tool prevents re-establishing of unsecured connection with your ISP when a VPN tunnel fails.
Providers implement this function differently. The most secure way to use a kill switch is when a firewall creates that prohibits any connection outside a VPN tunnel. However, this method doesn’t permit Split Tunneling functions the essence of which is in a simultaneous use of a regular Internet connection and a VPN tunnel.
Many vendors embed a kill switch at the software level. Being installed on a VPN app, the tool drops the Internet connection or closes an application when a server fails. Such a kill switch may work a little bit slower but it is still much better than no emergency disconnection altogether.
No DNS and IP Leaks
If during a VPN session your real VPN is exposed, then you have a leak. You can use this site ipleak.net to check whether you experience leakage or not. If you see your own IP or a name of your Internet provider this should become a reason for serious concern since your VPN vendor violates the very essence of a VPN.
In addition to IP leaks, you may encounter DNS ones. This term stands for the Domain Name System. DNS is sort of an IP address for sites. We, people, know the sites by their domain names. However, for machines with Internet-connecting capabilities, this information is needed in the binary code. DNS is a database that contains information about domain names and their digital equivalent. With a reliable VPN connection, your request is redirected through a VPN server and only then it reaches the desired site. Thus, your address can’t be associated with websites you accessed. If there is a DNS leak, this means that the connection was established directly through your Internet provider and it will see the resources you visited.
It is quite obvious that a secure VPN service shouldn’t tolerate any of these leakages.
Security-Enhanced Payment Methods
Sometimes VPN clients can expose their identity when registering and purchasing subscription plans. VPN providers can get information about your IP, email address, and credit card details. Fortunately, many vendors also offer anonymous payment methods, which include payment via gift cards, Bitcoin, other crypto-currency or via Ripple. Yes, VPN services will still ask for an email address when users sign up, but you can register an account with an anonymous email client and your identity will remain secret.
If a service doesn’t offer anonymous payment methods, you can ask how it processes the provided data. If user authentication and payment information are stored on different and independent platforms, then you have nothing to worry about.
Is it Safe to Use Free VPNs?
When you buy a subscription with a paid VPN, you can be sure that your money will be used to purchase more servers, ensure their uninterrupted operation, and reconfiguration for the latest security protocols. Also, a reliable service should maintain a large staff of network service specialists and support teams. With free VPNs, you don’t pay a cent, so how can they buy all this equipment and put it into service to protect your anonymity? Most free vendors don’t hide the fact that the source of their funding is third parties. It is possible that together with advertising space such VPNs also sell user data, especially since such incidents have already taken place.
Free VPNs can be good enough for general surfing and they can even hide your IP but by and large, this is all they can put on the table. It would be too naive to assume that they equip their servers with the most advanced security protocols. Without reliable encryption, hackers or intelligence agencies can pick up a key and take over your confidential data. IP and DNS leaks can also happen because if not all paid services implement Kill Switch, why would free ones take care of it?
All in all, free VPNs are not secure and you should avoid them if you cherish your privacy. Only a handful of reputable VPNs can safeguard you against data sniffers that are craving to get their hands on your sensitive information. The most secure VPNs, especially the ones described in this article, carry multiple features specialized for privacy and anonymity and they always go the extra mile to ensure your peace of mind.