What is a VPN and what is it for?

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) can both keep your internet browsing anonymous, and make you appear to be located in another country. They can also be used to protect your location and personal data from data mining companies, hackers and government surveillance. VPNs do this by providing you with an encrypted connection to a private network via the internet.

In business, they’re widely used to allow remote workers to securely access their employer’s office network as though they were physically connected to it.

However, the desire for online privacy has led to the rise of consumer-oriented VPN tunnelling services which, rather than connecting to a remote private network, route your internet connection via a remote server.

Related: Our guide to the Best VPN 2018

 

What is a VPN for?

 

There are a number of reasons to use a VPN tunnelling service. Of these, the most compelling is privacy: thanks to end-to-end encryption, it becomes impossible for your network traffic to be monitored from outside your PC. Packet inspection will reveal only encrypted data.

This has obvious advantages if you want an extra layer of security when it comes to, for example, keeping your browsing habits private. This is particularly important on public Wi-Fi networks, where you have no way of being sure how secure your connection is. It also means services that may throttle or even block your connection based on what kind of data you’re sending, such as some office, mobile and public networks, won’t be able to do so.

While some networks, either deliberately or as an incidental result of not permitting certain protocols, may also block VPN connections, this is unusual. However, as an extra security feature for those who need to hide the fact that they’re using a VPN, a number of service providers have implemented methods of obfuscating their encrypted traffic, such as TunnelBear’s GhostBear mode and VyprVPN’s Chameleon mode.

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How to set up a VPN connection

To create a VPN connection you need to install a VPN client. These are available as applications on nearly every operating system you can think if including Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android and Linux.

Data retention and the law

 

If privacy is a key concern behind your VPN use, then you should be aware that different service providers have varying policies on logging users’ connection data and that, depending on where a company is headquartered, they will be subject to differing data retention regulations.

Our table and reviews detail both where each service is based and whether it retains any connection logs. However, logging isn’t the be-all and end-all of VPN security. We’ve restricted ourselves to testing services from reputable companies with a proven track record, but it’s impossible to truly know how much faith can be put in any organisation’s claims about their logging policy.

In some cases, these claims have been put to the test, however, with US-based Private Internet Access providing no data to the FBI because they had no log, ExpressVPN’s endpoint servers being found to contain no log data when seized by Turkish authorities, and

UK-based Hide My Ass!, which keeps connection logs, handing over data in accordance with UK law during the LulzSec case.

In general, companies based in countries that have laws safeguarding privacy, such as Switzerland and Panama, are a better bet for privacy than those based in restrictive nations such as the UK or Russia, regardless of logging policy.

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International access

 

As VPN services allow you to access online content as though you were physically located in a different country, they’re extremely useful if you’re travelling on business and need to access location-restricted services or if you need to see how and whether a particular website or service works properly for users elsewhere in the world. With servers in over 190 countries, Hide My Ass! is by far the best equipped VPN provider in this respect, on the off-chance that you ever need to see what your website looks like to users in Burkina Faso.

Some VPN services can also provide you with dedicated IP address of your own in a specific country, making it easier to create a virtual home or office overseas. NordVPN and Hide My Ass! Both provide this service.

However, this ability to virtually hop around the globe is most widely used to watch streaming video services from other regions or, while you’re travelling, to avoid missing your favourite TV programmes from home. This is frowned upon by international media rights holders, and streaming services such as Netflix have undertaken increasingly effective efforts to block proxy and VPN services. While every service worked with US-only YouTube content, only a handful enabled us to view US Netflix or UK iPlayer content from overseas.

Region-shifting is a legal grey area that could put you in breach of a streaming service’s terms and conditions, rather than outright copyright theft of the kind involved in, for example, torrenting pirated content.

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Proxies

 

We’ve previously reviewed the “VPN” built into the Opera browser in these group tests, even though it’s an HTTP proxy, rather than a true VPN. However, recent changes following Opera’s sale of endpoint provider SurfEasy in November 2017, including a drop in the number of endpoints and a performance hit for non-European services, have rendered it less useful for accessing region-restricted content, and we will no longer be including it. Key differences between a proxy and a VPN are that a web proxy only works for HTTP and HTTPS web traffic, while a VPN routes all of your internet traffic through its servers. While web proxies are often encrypted, providing better-than-nothing privacy when using public Wi-Fi networks, they don’t provide security for all your traffic.

For privacy-minded users on a budget, we instead recommend the free tiers of VPN services such as TunnelBear, OkayFreedom or Windscribe.

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Performance

VPN performance is affected by such a wide range of factors that it’s not possible to produce conclusive test results. The speed of your own internet connection and user load on your selected VPN endpoint server, as well as the server you’re connecting to beyond that, at the time are both significant here. Due to the sheer number of frequently-rotated servers provided by most VPN services, comprehensive testing isn’t possible in this instance.

However, we ran comparative tests on each service from a London-based connection that typically sees speeds of over 10MB/s. We tested multiple servers from each provider in three locations: the UK, the Netherlands and the USA. Our table shows the best results we were able to obtain during a large file download via FTP, but these figures are a snapshot of performance at a single point in time, rather than being fully representative.

While UK and Dutch endpoints only had a moderate impact on speed with most providers, connection speeds to the USA were universally poor, with most VPN’s clocking download speeds of less than 3MB/s.

 

Let us know whether you use a VPN and, if so, which one in the comments below.

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