You may know what a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is; you probably don't use one. You really should be using a VPN, and even if you don't think so now, at some point in the future you may consider it as important as your internet connection.
When we took at look at your five favorite VPN service providers, we noticed a few things. First, being the "best" is big business for VPN providers, and they'll fight dirty to be one of them. Second, there are so many VPN providers that it's difficult to choose a really good one. VPNs are not all created equally, and in this post, we're going to look at what a VPN is, why you want one, and how to pick the best one for you. Let's get started.
What Is a VPN?
Put simply, a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a group of computers (or discrete networks) networked together over a public network—namely, the internet. Businesses use VPNs to connect remote datacenters, and individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they're not physically on the same LAN (local area network), or as a method for securing and encrypting their communications when they're using an untrusted public network. Photo by Pavel Ignatov (Shutterstock).
When you connect to a VPN, you usually launch a VPN client on your computer (or click a link on a special website), log in with your credentials, and your computer exchanges trusted keys with a far away server. Once both computers have verified each other as authentic, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.
The most important thing you need to know about a VPN: It secures your computer's internet connection to guarantee that all of the data you're sending and receiving is encrypted and secured from prying eyes.
Whether the VPNs you're familiar with are the ones offered by your school or business to help you work or stay connected when you're traveling or the ones you pay to get you watch your favorite shows in another country as they air, they're all doing the same thing. For much more detail on what VPNs are, how they work, and how they're used, check out this How Stuff Works article.
Why You Need a VPN, or How You Can Benefit from Using One
A VPN alone is just a way to bolster your security and access resources on a network you're not physically connected to. What you choose to do with a VPN is a different story. Usually, VPN users fall into a few separate categories:
- The student/worker. This person has responsibilities to attend to, and uses a VPN provided by their school or company to access resources on their network when they're at home or traveling. In most cases, this person already has a free VPN service provided to them, so they're not exactly shopping around. Also, if they're worried about security, they can always fire up their VPN when using airport or cafe WI-Fi to ensure no one's snooping on their connection. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
- The downloader. Whether they're downloading legally or illegally, this person doesn't want on some company's witch-hunt list just because they have a torrenting app installed on their computer. VPNs are the only way to stay safe when using something like BitTorrent—everything else is just a false sense of security. Better safe than trying to defend yourself in court or paying a massive fine for something you may or may not have even done, right?
- The privacy minded and security advocate. Whether they're a in a strictly monitored environment or a completely free and open one, this person uses VPN services to keep their communications secure and encrypted and away from prying eyes whether they're at home or abroad. To them, unsecured connections mean someone's reading what you say.
- The globetrotter. This person wants to watch the Olympics live as they happen, without dealing with their crummy local networks. They want to check out their favorite TV shows as they air instead of waiting for translations or re-broadcasts (or watch the versions aired in other countries,) listen to location-restricted streaming internet radio, or want to use a new web service or application that looks great but for some reason is limited to a specific country or region.
- Some combination of the above. Odds are, even if you're not one of these people more often than not, you're some mix of them depending on what you're doing. In all of these cases, a VPN service can be helpful, whether it's just a matter of protecting yourself when you're out and about, whether you handle sensitive data for your job and don't want to get fired, or you're just covering your own ass from the MPAA.
We've shown you how to build your own VPN for remote gaming and browsing that also protects your security, shown you how to make a VPN even more secure, and shown you dozens of services that operate free and paid VPNs you can sign up for and use. We've even put the question to you several times to tell us which VPN service providers you think are the best. So how do you pick a solid VPN service?
Even if you have no idea what a VPN is (it's a Virtual Private Network), the acronym alone…Read more Read more
What Makes for a Good VPN?The best VPNs offer a solid balance of features, server location, connectivity protocols, and price. Some are great for occasional use, others are geared towards getting around the location restrictions companies put on their apps and services, and others are targeted at people who do heavy downloading and want a little privacy while they do it. Here's what you should look for.
- Protocol: When you're researching a VPN, you'll see terms like SSL/TLS (sometimes referred to as OpenVPN support,) PPTP, IPSec, L2TP, and other VPN types. We asked Samara Lynn, Lead Analyst for Networking and Small Business at PCMag, whether or not a user shopping for a VPN should shop for one over another. "SSL is what is commonly used these days. All of these protocols will provide a secure connection," she explained, and pointed out that most solutions are invisible to the end-user anyway. Strictly, each protocol has its benefits and drawbacks, and if you're concerned about this (specifically, PPTP vulnerabilities,) you're probably already aware of them. Most users don't need to be concerned about this—corporate users on the other hand, are probably all using IPSec or SSL clients anyway.
- Corporate and Exit Locations: Depending on what you're using a VPN for, your service's location—and the exit locations you can choose—are important to consider. If you want to get around a location restriction and watch live TV in the UK, for example, you want to make sure your VPN service provider has servers in the UK. If you're concerned about privacy or state-sponsored snooping, you may want to pick a service operated outside of your home country. Similarly, if the service is based on the US, they're subject to US laws, and may be forced to turn over usage data to the authorities upon request. Many people make more of this than they should (we've seen overseas services turn over their data to friendly governments without any hesitation repeatedly), but it's important to make sure a VPN has servers in multiple locations—or at least the location you're interested in—when shopping.
- Logging: When you connect to a VPN, you're trusting the VPN service provider with your data. Your communications may be secure from eavesdropping, but other systems on the same VPN—especially the operator—can log your data if they choose. If this bothers you (e.g., you're the privacy/security advocate or the downloader), make absolutely sure you know your provider's logging policies before signing up. This applies to location as well—if your company doesn't keep logs, it may not matter as much where it's located. (There's a popular rumor that US-based VPN providers are required to log, in case the government wants them. This isn't true, but the government can always request whatever data they have if they do log.) For a good list of VPN providers that don't log your activities when connected (and many that do), check out this TorrentFreak article.
- Anti-Malware/Anti-Spyware Features: Using a VPN doesn't mean you're invulnerable. You should still make sure you're using HTTPS whenever possible, and you should still be careful about what you download. Some VPN service providers—especially mobile ones—bundle their clients with anti-malware scanners to make sure you're not downloading viruses or trojans. When you're shopping, see if the providers you're interested in offer anti-malware protection while you're connected. For example, previously mentioned Hotspot Shield offers malware protection to its premium users. It may not be a dealbreaker for you, but it's always good to have someone watching your back.
- Mobile Apps: If you're going to spend money on a VPN service provider (or even if you use a free one, frankly), you should be able to get a consistent experience across all of your devices. Most prominent providers offer desktop and mobile solutions for individual users, and while corporate and school networks may be a bit behind the curve here, they're catching up too. Make sure you don't have to use two different VPNs with two different policies and agreements just because you want to secure your phone along with your laptop.
- Free VPN Providers are more likely to log your activities and serve contextual ads while you're connected. They're also more likely to use your usage habits to tailor future ads to you, have fewer exit locations, and weak commitments to privacy. They may offer great features, but if logging and privacy are important to you, you may want to avoid them. However, if you just need quick, painless security while traveling on a budget, they're a great option.
- Subscription VPN Providers usually take your privacy a bit more seriously, since you're paying for the service. It's unusual for them to show ads, although whether they do logging or store data about your usage varies from company to company. They usually offer free trials so you can give the service a shot first, but remember: just because you're paying for a service doesn't mean you shouldn't do your homework.
Security mechanismsVPNs cannot make online connections completely anonymous, but they can usually increase privacy and security. To prevent disclosure of private information, VPNs typically allow only authenticated remote access using tunneling protocols and encryption techniques.
The VPN security model provides:
- Confidentiality such that even if the network traffic is sniffed at the packet level (see network sniffer and Deep packet inspection), an attacker would only see encrypted data
- Sender authentication to prevent unauthorized users from accessing the VPN
- Message integrity to detect any instances of tampering with transmitted messages
- Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) as initially developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for IPv6, which was required in all standards-compliant implementations of IPv6 before RFC 6434 made it only a recommendation. This standards-based security protocol is also widely used with IPv4 and the Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol. Its design meets most security goals: authentication, integrity, and confidentiality. IPsec uses encryption, encapsulating an IP packet inside an IPsec packet. De-encapsulation happens at the end of the tunnel, where the original IP packet is decrypted and forwarded to its intended destination.
- Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) can tunnel an entire network's traffic (as it does in the OpenVPN project and SoftEther VPN project) or secure an individual connection. A number of vendors provide remote-access VPN capabilities through SSL. An SSL VPN can connect from locations where IPsec runs into trouble with Network Address Translation and firewall rules.
- Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS) - used in Cisco AnyConnect VPN and in OpenConnect VPN to solve the issues SSL/TLS has with tunneling over UDP.
- Microsoft Point-to-Point Encryption (MPPE) works with the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol and in several compatible implementations on other platforms.
- Microsoft Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) tunnels Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) or Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol traffic through an SSL 3.0 channel. (SSTP was introduced in Windows Server 2008 and in Windows Vista Service Pack 1.)
- Multi Path Virtual Private Network (MPVPN). Ragula Systems Development Company owns the registered trademark "MPVPN".
- Secure Shell (SSH) VPN - OpenSSH offers VPN tunneling (distinct from port forwarding) to secure remote connections to a network or to inter-network links. OpenSSH server provides a limited number of concurrent tunnels. The VPN feature itself does not support personal authentication.