There are very few topics I write about which deserve a yearly check-in. Securing our online privacy is one of them. Given how quickly both technology and the global climate can change, it’s worth revisiting my research, opinions and recommendations on matters of privacy. So, let’s start at the beginning. I’ll start with the bad news, then give you the good news.
The Bad News: Online Privacy is, Essentially, Gone
The concept of privacy is a crucial bedrock of any Democracy. However, that privacy should also apply to what we do online, not just in our homes. Unfortunately, that right is now gone. If you have a high-speed data connection to the Internet in the US, it’s most likely provided by a company named AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Charter, Hughes or Verizon. Those companies know when you connect to the web, they know where you surf on the web and they know how long you spend on the web. Even so, there used to be restrictions on what those companies could do with your data.
At least, there was until 2017. In 2017, the US Congress voted to allow US internet service providers (or “ISPs”) to sell our browsing data without our consent to anyone they wish. This wasn’t a surprise to people who follow cyber security because those people have been watching the ease of right to online privacy steadily erode.
The Good News: We Can Reclaim The Privacy We’ve Lost
However, there’s a simple, legal and affordable tool we can use to hide our data from companies like AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Charter, Hughes and Verizon. This tool ensures that those companies can’t know the websites we decide to visit. The tool is called a virtual private network or “VPN”. There is, currently, no better method I know of to help folks reclaim their online privacy.
Connecting to the internet through AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Charter, Hughes and Verizon ensures that those companies can log or monitor — if they wish — every website and IP address that we visit while we’re using their connection. However, by using a VPN service, we add a layer of protection between our ISP and the websites we visit. That prevents our ISP’s from seeing where we surf online. Instead, all they can log is that we’ve connected to our VPN service. It’s like surfing the internet using a Harry Potter invisibility cloak! Only, in this metaphor, the bad guys are the ISPs, hackers and the U.S. Government, not Malfoy and He Who Must Not Be Named.
If you need a visual to better understand, here’s a simple graphic to assist. The top half of the picture, in green, shows how using a VPN works to keep your internet data encrypted or protected from the prying eyes of our ISP; the bottom half of the picture, in red, shows how surfing the web without a VPN exposes our data to our ISP:
Remember: This is About Privacy
Some of you believe — because you’re not doing anything illegal online — that you don’t need a VPN. Bravo to you, but, respectfully, you’re missing the point. Acting illegally online isn’t the issue: the issue is having privacy online, plain and simple. Think of this real world analogy: would you be comfortable knowing that various companies kept logs with timestamps tracking exactly where you drove, exactly what you did at work, exactly where and when you banked, exactly where you shopped and with whom you spent all of your time?
No? Then you’ll want a VPN.
How To Choose The Right VPN
There are hundreds of companies that provide VPN services. Trust none of them… at least until they’ve proven to you that you can trust them. What defines trust differs from person to person, so I’ve developed the list below that defines it for me. Your list might be slightly different but mine is based on four, core principles: privacy, anonymity, convenience, and security. With those four principles in mind, I recommend that you only choose a VPN service which:
- Keeps no logs on the websites nor the IP addresses that its customers visit for privacy.
- Is NOT headquartered in the United States, for security from scrutiny by the US government.
- Is NOT a member of the 5, 9, or 14 eyes security agreement, also for security from scrutiny by the US government and its international partners.
- Offers servers physically located in at least 8 to 10 different countries, for convenience and for security.
- Allows at least 5 different simultaneous connections on your account, for convenience so you can have your computers and mobile devices all connected.
- Offers a connection using the “OpenVPN” standard, considered a top protocol for security.
- Uses an SSL Certificate, also considered essential for security.
- Offers a free trial and/or a money back guarantee after at least 14 days, for convenience.
- Supports Macs, PCs, Android and iOS devices, for convenience.
- Allows payment through cryptocurrency or gift cards, for anonymity.
Initially, I thought since there were hundreds of VPN providers, that many of them would provide these services. I was wrong. Only a few meet every one of these criteria. Here is the short list of those that do:
- NordVPN, headquartered in Panama: I personally use Nord because they provide an easy, seamless and graphically pleasing interface. They aren’t the fastest VPN providers but they’ve got the most servers in the most countries and constantly rank in most reviewer’s top 10 list.
- PureVPN: removed from this list due to new information about how they provided information and logs from one of their subscribers to the FBI. Immediate grounds for distrust. H/T to Kenneth Ag for the info about this. Thank you, sir!
- Hide.me, headquartered in Malaysia: Offers an impressive free trial, very speedy servers, and an easy-to-use interface that works on nearly any computer or mobile device.
- SaferVPN, headquartered in Israel: SaferVPN is a newer company but already very well-respected in some circles because of their high levels of security and how fast their servers are compared to other providers. Israel has some of the strictest laws on user privacy on the planet.
- VPNarea, headquartered in Bulgaria: smaller company providing better service, so I’ve read. They’re speeds aren’t the best, but the country of Bulgaria has a strict data retention and “No Logs” law. While the company provides their user servers in other countries, there aren’t as many as some of their competition. Still, a great choice for the average user.
- Cactus VPN, headquartered in Moldova: their servers are in fewer countries and their speeds aren’t nearly as fast as the competition (comparison can be found here), but they still meet all of the criteria on my list and I support them for that.
- BlackVPN, headquartered in Hong Kong: have super high hardware and software security, fast speeds and are located in an offshore location for best security from prying government eyes.
Click on any company name I’ve listed above (in bold) to visit their websites and learn more. Expect to pay $3–10/month depending on the plan you purchase. I respect these companies enough that I became an affiliate with most of them. That means if you purchase a VPN plan using my links, I receive a fraction of the sale as a “thank you tip” for recommending them. Frankly, I’d support these companies anyway: they’re the only ones who meet my ten-point list and I think they deserve your business for that reason alone.
Additional Options to Consider
Some of you might have very different and specific priorities when shopping for a VPN service. For example, some of you might want to be able to freely surf the web in China; others might wish to log into your American Netflix account while travelling internationally; some seek to experiment with “Double VPN”; and the thieves among you — you know who you are! — might want to download torrent or usenet files. Regardless of your specific needs, my advice is to start your research with the companies I’ve listed as some of them also provide these “bonus” features on top of a strong product that enables your privacy, anonymity and security.
I’ll update this list once a year as the technology landscape changes regularly. In the meantime, I encourage you to do your own research! Here’s someone I follow because he’s the most fanatical VPN reviewer and tester I’ve ever seen when it comes to comparing the world’s best VPN services.
As always… surf safe.