James Patterson | 28 Apr 2017
VPNs are becoming increasingly popular due to the new and creative ways that hackers, governments, and internet providers are tracking your data usage. If you’ve considered signing up for a VPN service, you may be a bit overwhelmed at all the options you have available. How do you know which ones are legit and reliable, and which ones should be avoided? This article contains a few helpful tips on what to look for in a VPN service.
You should first choose a VPN service based on its proximity to you. This is because online connections take longer if they have to travel a great distance, so you may experience lag and slower speeds if you opt for a provider that is on the other side of the world from you. Fortunately, most VPN companies have servers based in many geographic areas, allowing you to choose the node that is closest to you for optimal speeds. The VPN software may even do this for you automatically to take the guess-work out of it. However, if your provider only offers a few servers that are all far away, you may want to continue looking or resign yourself to dealing with slow speeds.
One caveat to this point is if you’re deliberately trying to connect to another part of the world in order to bypass a geo-restriction. In those cases you may have no choice but to deal with slightly lower speeds in order to access the content you’re trying to get to.
After choosing a VPN solution based on how close it is to you, you should next look at the reviews that other people have written about it. We all know that a company’s marketing statements only carry so much weight, and the real facts are contained in user reviews. Do a Google search of “[VPN company] reviews” so you can see what other people have to say about it. Obviously if everyone is telling you to stay away, you’d better cross that one off your list.
Be sure to look at real review sites, and not websites that are actually affiliates of the service who get paid for referrals. There are plenty of fake reviews on the internet that will make the service sound like the best thing since sliced bread, but only because they get paid when you click their referral link and sign up. Web forums and neutral review sites are the best places to find legitimate reviews with honest opinions.
The next item on your checklist for a VPN software should be how well it encrypts your information as it passes back and forth between you and the VPN server. Encryption creates a secret “tunnel” between you and the VPN server, resulting in a protected channel that your data passes through, which is only accessible to you and the server. Even if an attacker were trying to spy on you, the data flow would be unreadable to them since they don’t have the secret encryption key. Most VPNs will offer some kind of encryption, but you need to figure out what kind of encryption it is to know whether your data will actually be secure.
As a rule of thumb, check to see whether the VPN offers an encryption strength of at least 256 bits (sometimes called RSA-256). An algorithm of this strength will be very difficult for someone to crack if they were eavesdropping on your connection. Be wary of anything less (like 128-bit, or even worse, 64-bit), and do a quick search on your provider’s encryption algorithm to make sure the experts agree it’s safe. Be especially cautious if the provider won’t even tell you what encryption they use, since it could mean that it’s very weak or nonexistent!
Another important point to consider when choosing a VPN service is whether they retain your browsing logs or not. After all, the whole point of using a VPN is to protect your privacy, so it defeats the purpose if the VPN company stores logs of what you do. A good provider who values privacy will not retain any kind of user logs, so that your data couldn’t be retrieved even if a government agency were demanding it. This is especially prevalent with free VPN software, whose creators will usually log and sell your data as described below. Most paid services will not retain logs since they have no reason or incentive to.
It’s important to note that the truly good VPN providers will always require you to pay some kind of subscription fee. This is actually a good thing if you think about it. If a VPN company is providing all these benefits for free, how do they make money? In order to recover their operating costs and make a profit, most free VPN companies will sell your data to advertisers, which contradicts the reason for using a VPN in the first place. They might reassure you that you still remain anonymous and they’re not selling your personal information, but targeted advertising is a pain and still reveals your browsing behaviors.
With a paid VPN, the company has no incentive to mishandle your data, and all the incentive to provide the best service possible, because they wouldn’t make money otherwise. All they have to do is charge a fair price for their service and then there’s no need to sell your information.
With all the data leaks, government spying, and aggressive hackers out there, it’s no wonder that VPN popularity has gone through the roof. Many internet users are flocking to VPNs in droves in order to remain anonymous online and protect their privacy. While there are hundreds of providers out there who will all tell you that their service is the best, you have to look at the details in order to verify their claim. If you’ve been thinking of signing up for a VPN, be sure to look for these points in your service provider.
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